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How to Tell if a Little Kid’s Odor Is Cause for Concern

Kids are naturally stinky, but there are some cases where an early funk might be a cause for parental concern.

From diaper blowouts to skipped baths, most parents are no strangers to kids odors. But parents who regularly notice their young child’s body odor and can’t point to an obvious cause might have reason to be concerned. It’s one thing to notice that a kid who’s been running around outside smells like it; another to routinely smell your kid’s armpit stink from so far away you begin researching kid’s deodorant. There’s a significant difference between a child getting stinky by interacting with his or her environment, like playing in the mud, and biological body odor causes. Here’s how to tell whether your kid’s smell could be a symptom of something bigger.

Body odor is normal starting with early puberty, which is why that’s generally when kids start using deodorant. But the presence of body odor in children and toddlers who aren’t yet at the typical age for puberty — 8 to 13 for girls and 9 to 14 for boys, generally — could signal that it’s time to talk to a pediatrician

Generally, body odors in kids begin emerging when apocrine sweat glands — the ones found in the armpit — become activated. Unlike eccrine glands, which are active throughout the body from birth, apocrine-produced sweat contains substances like fat, which skin-dwelling bacteria then digest. Which is to say, body odor is caused by armpit bacterial poop, more or less.

“The abnormal stuff parents should worry about is a less-than-puberty-age child starting to develop stinky sweat, especially if it’s associated with early puberty,” says Dr. Howard Reinstein, a spokesman for the American Association of Pediatricians who serves as clinical faculty at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the UCLA Medical Center. “Being an early bloomer is okay. If you get a little bit of hair when you’re 9, 10, 11, that’s one thing. If you’re 5 or 6 that shouldn’t happen. The concern is that something’s wrong.”

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The most common manifestation of early puberty, central precocious puberty, results in the early production of estrogen and testosterone, which triggers abnormal growth spurts that can result in taller-than-average height or a quick spurt followed by suspended growth. It can also result in psychological and behavioral issues. 

There are also genetic metabolic diseases that can cause body odor in children, such as Trimethylaminuria, also known as fish odor syndrome, which smells exactly how it sounds. But the chances that your kid’s body odor is caused by a rare disease is…exceedingly rare. That sounds like a lot of hullabaloo over a little funkiness under the arms, but knowing this can help parents and pediatricians identify broader problems. 

More often than not, body odor in children is just a case of poor hygiene that can be mitigated with more regular baths and maybe some preventative measures for kids who are naturally a bit more sweaty. Parents can also monitor the child’s diet, limiting pungent foods like garlic. Some studies also indicate that organic milk devoid of hormones can reduce odor. And if all else fails, deodorant for kids can be a powerful weapon.

“Even young kids who are excessive sweaters, we may use an antiperspirant they can tolerate,” says Dr. Reinstein, adding that parents should monitor the underarms for irritation. “Even with good hygiene, some kids continue to have a smell to their sweat. Some people, not just kids, have hyperhidrosis — they have sweaty hands and feet, and they’re always sweaty even when they’re not exercising and it’s not hot. People who have that kind of sweat can develop some odor also.”

Nobody wants to be the parent with the stinky kid, and nobody wants to let warning signs go unchecked. But the majority of the time, a kid’s odor can be traced to the fact that kids are generally prone to touching stinky stuff and carrying their odors around with them.