Smelly sweat, and lots of it -- what to do?

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Sometimes after vigorous exercise, I detect a faint odor similar to acetone. Is this common? What is it telling us?


Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

I desperately need exercise but hate to do it, not because of the work, but because I sweat -- as in flop-sweat, wring-out-your-clothes-for-the-next-hour sweat. My core temperature refuses to drop. Is there any help for me? I'm nearing 50, but it's been this way since puberty.

L. DeVere


Although, no one likes to be a sweaty, smelly mess, in most cases abundant sweat and odor are normal. Not pleasant, mind you -- but normal.

The odor could be caused by a chemical process that occurs when the body is burning up excess fuels, says Dr. Allan Abbott, an internist specializing in sports medicine and professor of clinical family medicine at USC's Keck School of Medicine. "When someone doesn't eat for a while, they start burning their own body fat and proteins," he says. This process can cause an odor, and that could be what you are experiencing.

There is also a more serious possibility. The odor may be signaling early or actual diabetes. "If the person is not producing enough insulin, he will start burning his own fat instead of the usual sugar stores," Abbott says. This process could cause an odor similar to acetone.

Finally, is it really acetone that you're smelling? Garden-variety sweat odor is produced when perspiration comes into contact with bacteria. "The moisture and the heat will combine to foster growth and activity of bacteria that are already there," Abbott says. The more bacteria, the more odor is produced. The longer the period between showering and exercising, the worse the odor. "It's analogous to wearing an old, dirty, sweaty shirt many days in a row."

If you sweat excessively, there probably isn't a silver bullet for you, says Dr. Rodney Gabriel, a sports physician and orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Orthopaedic Center. Sweating is the body's natural way of cooling down; there's a wide range of normal, and everyone does it a little differently.

One element that boosts sweating is humidity. "If there's a large amount of humidity, then you sweat more profusely because your body cannot evaporate the fluid," Gabriel says. "The way the body cools down is not the sweating itself, but the evaporation of the sweat from the skin."

Sweat that won't evaporate could also create the sensation that your core temperature is high even though it merely feels that way, Gabriel says. If you're working out in a hot, humid room, you might want to consider scouting your environment for a cooler, drier place.

Another factor that can affect sweating is weight, Abbott adds. A person who's overweight is going to sweat more than a thin person. One reason for this: Tall, slender people tend to dissipate heat better than their more corpulent compatriots in part because their surface area relative to body mass is larger.

If you feel that your sweating is truly excessive, you may want to consult a physician because there are a few conditions that can cause excess sweating, including thyroid disease and diabetes. But most likely, this is part of the hand you were dealt by your parents. "Genetically, some people sweat more than others," Gabriel says, "and there's nothing you can do about that."

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