Odors cling to kids. The romantic notion that babies smell like butter and clouds goes right out the window the minute that they have their first diaper blowout, approximately five minutes after birth. As they age, they’re either farting or digging face-first through a trash can. They stink, and that’s ok. But there’s a massive difference between a child getting stinky by interacting with his or her environment and actually developing body odor. If the latter happens too early, it could be a cause for concern.
Generally, body odors begin emerging and stinging unsuspecting parents’ eyes at the onset of puberty, when apocrine sweat glands — the ones found in the underarm — become activated. Unlike eccrine glands, which are active throughout the body from birth, apocrine-produced sweat contains substances like fat, which are in turn consumed and digested by skin-dwelling bacteria. Which is to say, BO is caused by bacterial poop, more or less.
Body odor, then, is normal from early puberty on. But the presence of body odor on children who aren’t yet at the typical age for puberty — 8-13 for girls, 9-14 for boys, generally — could signal that it’s time to get to a pediatrician.
“The abnormal stuff parents should worry about is a less-than-puberty-age child is 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 ok. 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. For some reason, hormones are being secreted that shouldn’t be secreted yet. You have to worry: Why is that system getting activated? Is there something secreting levels of a hormone that shouldn’t be elevated yet?”
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. In addition, it can result in psychological and behavioral issues.
That sounds like a lot of hullabaloo over a little funkiness under the arms, but nonetheless it is a cause for concern in young children. In addition, there are genetic metabolic diseases that can cause odor, such as Trimethylaminuria, also known as fish odor syndrome, which is exactly what it sounds like. But those are blessedly rare.
More often than not, if a child isn’t suddenly smelling like a construction worker who just finished an after-work Crossfit session, it’s likely just a case of poor hygiene, which simply calls for an increase in washing and some preventative measures for kids who are naturally a bit more sweaty. Parents can also monitor the child’s diet, limiting more pungent foods like curry and garlic. Some studies also indicate that organic milk devoid of hormones can reduce odor. And if all else fails, deodorant is 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 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. If they don’t smell like standard body odor or emit some other chronic funk, chances are it will wash off … at least until they hit puberty.
“Make sure it’s the sweat that’s smelly and not other things: Is there urine on the skin that’s kind of smelling funky?” says Dr. Reinstein. “You just want to make sure you’re dealing with sweat, and not that his hair hasn’t been washed in two weeks.”