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Grossology: The Science of the Disgusting

Kids and adults learn how and why the body does those yucky things it does - like pooping, farting, belching, and making snot.

Sweat & Body Odor

"Smelly sweat comes from sweat glands located mostly in the armpits but also in the crotch, anus, and a little on the scalp," Branzei writes. Sweating is the body's air conditioning system. When sweat is released, it coats the skin to remove heat from the body. When sweat evaporates, you cool down. Salts and urea are left behind. That's why sweat tastes salty and feels sticky.

Until age 12 or so, sweat glands aren't active. That's why adults are so stinky and kids aren't, she explains. The sweat itself is actually not a problem; it's pretty much odorless. In fact, your palms have more than 2,000 sweat glands -- much more than any body part -- but they don't attract bacteria that cause bad smell.

Some foods like onions, garlic, curry -- and even some medications -- can give your sweat an extra scent, explains Horesh. Some physical changes can cause excess sweat, as happens with infections, menopause, anxiety, and overactive thyroid. "And the more you sweat, of course, the greater chance that bacteria on your skin will make you smell," she says.

Also, a diabetes-related problem called diabetic ketoacidosis can cause a sweet, slightly fruity -scented breath or skin smell, Horesh says.

Factoid: During the Middle Ages, bathing was not in style. Not having to bathe was a sign of wealth. They certainly did sweat and stink, however -- and covered it up with perfumes, oils, and spices.

Bad Breath

Almost everyone occasionally has bad breath (halitosis), Branzei writes. Bacteria cause "morning breath," which brushing will eliminate. Enzymes in onions and garlic cause their own special breath problems; enzymes get into the blood, which makes its way to your lungs, so you breathe flavored gas. Smokers' breath comes from smoke that contaminates the lungs.

When bad breath is a chronic problem and can't be eliminated with mints, mouthwash, brushing or avoiding onions, it may be a symptom of a different problem. Sinus infections, allergies, decaying teeth, diseased gums, and digestive problems are just a few reasons for chronic bad breath. It's time to check with a dentist or a doctor.

Post-nasal drip and acid reflux can cause bad breath, notes Horesh. As with sweating, diabetic ketoacidosis can also trigger a sweet, fruity smelling breath. "It's rare, but we do see it."

And while it's not a dangerous problem, something called "tonsiliths" or "tonsil stones" are fairly common, Horesh adds. "It's mucus mixed with natural mouth bacteria that forms a dime-sized collection that looks like cauliflower. It gets stuck in the roof with your tonsils, and you can cough it out. It looks really gross, but it's a natural phenomenon. It just freaks a lot of people out."

"These are all the things that doctors love to talk about," Horesh tells WebMD. "We think we've got a great story to tell at a party when we talk about a patient who was vomiting bile 3 feet out. Then when people start walking away we realize not everyone is comfortable hearing about these things."


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