1 in 8 Americans Over 40 Have a Measurable Smell Disorder

Gillian Sisley

Understanding the stats and science of body odor.

Photo by Curology on Unsplash

We've all been through the uncomfortable changes that come with puberty. It's an awkward, challenging, and overall uncomfortable time for anyone.

Now, imagine having chronic body odor. And on top of that, having to battle your condition whilst being judged by your most critical audience -- pre-teen peers.

The National Institute of Deafness and Other Communications Disorders reports that 1 in 8 Americans over the age of 40 are reported as having a measurable smell disorder. The NIDCD also states that the prevalence of smell impairment decreases with age, thus older individuals may naturally reduce their hygiene practices for the simple case that they cannot smell their own body odor.

It's likely that many readers have had some experience with this phenomenon -- whether from an aging relative or an acquaintance.

I myself had such an experience in school with one of my classmates.

I reflect back on my treatment of this girl and feel terrible -- as I should.

It really wasn’t her fault. We were all going through these new, weird body changes, with new hair and odors in places they hadn’t been before.

She had it far worse because she clearly had a chronic sweating or body odor disorder.

It was actually really tough to be near her some days — and I was the person who shared a locker wih her. I left a hoodie in there for an afternoon one time, and I will say that I never made that mistake again.

It took 3-4 washes to get the stench of another person’s body out of that hoodie. I was never really fond of it after that.

She was relentlessly bullied for her struggle. And I certainly felt horrible about that — but I could also understand the uproar. It was hard to be near her for too long. For example, I made an intentional effort to sit next to her for a full hour in class. I left that class legitimately feeling nauseous, with a pounding headache.

And science doesn't debunk my experience. Data shows that:

Clinical studies report that anywhere between 25 and 50 percent of migraine sufferers experience a heightened sensitivity to odors during their migraine headaches, and up to 50 percent report that strong smells or odors can trigger acute migraine attacks.

We as human beings are extremely sensitive to smell, which is one of the reasons why bad odor is such a taboo in most societies.

The social balance between being accepted and shunned can be very delicate.

This is especially in the case of judgemental peer groups.

Yeah, terrible, I know it. You know it.

But back then, school was our entire lives. We didn’t want to be the ones who were harassed next. So we let that poor girl be the scapegoat.

Classmates tried to endlessly elect me to tell her she stank. I refused. That was far too cruel — but then again, the social isolation was probably worse.

I can't say that I always treated her with the respect and dignity she deserved, and I regret that to this day.

Body odor conditions can be genetic.

I couldn’t help but wonder where this girl’s mother was — didn’t she have a role model at home to talk to her about the changes of puberty and remind her to stay hygienic and take a shower?

My mom certainly did that for me during puberty.

And then one day, I got my answer. This girl kindly offered to give me a drive home when my parents were stuck at work late.

I climbed into the car and greeted her mother politely — and a pungent smell of BO greeted me back immediately. It was a mix of both adult and pubescent body odor.

Truth is, it's possible the body odor disorders could have a genetic link. Trimethylaminuria is a metabolic disorder that is nicknamed "fish odor syndrome", due to the unpleasant odor that results as a symptom.

The more we talk about this disorder, the more empathy we can have for people who struggle with a chronic disorder like this.

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