My 5-Year-Old Smells … Bad

Dear Mamas,

Help… I think I’m going crazy. Could my 5 year old possibly have stinky pits?  It’s been a hot, humid summer and I’ve got two active kids but lately when I’m hugging and lovin’ on my youngest at the end of day, I could swear that that he needs deodorant — is it possible and what should I do?

Thanks, Lynn

Hi Lynn,

It’s definitely possible, and you’re not going crazy, so let’s talk about some of the likely causes.

Typically, kids develop body odor about the time of early puberty — usually around 12-ish for boys and a year or two earlier for girls. But some kids can begin much earlier. It’s all about the sweat, and what’s in and around it.

Perspiration is the body’s way of cooling itself and getting rid of toxins at the same time. There are two types: eccrine sweat is clear and is excreted all over our bodies to regulate body temperature. Apocrine sweat is a thicker substance produced by the sweat glands under the arms and around the groin . The perspiration itself is odorless. Body odor occurs when sweat is exposed to bacteria on the skin. It is the mixture of sweat and bacteria which cause the bad smell. This happens in places where sweat can’t evaporate easily, like the armpit.

Some people, including kids, produce more sweat than others for no apparent reason. Heredity is usually the bad guy here, and the solution is simple hygiene tips that we’ll talk about in a moment. But first, the less common causes.

Certain foods can contain substances that increase sweat and body odor in kids. Milk from cows given hormones to increase production is sometimes the culprit, as these hormones can be excreted in sweat and mimic human adult hormones. Some kids are sensitive to gluten or other food constituents, which can also increase bacterial growth in sweaty areas.

Occasionally there are medical causes. Medications can be excreted in sweat, changing the quality and quantity, so if your guy takes a medication regularly it could be to blame. Some conditions cause changes in sweat, like diabetes, liver or kidney disease, and thyroid disease. If you notice any signs of early pubertal development, like the beginning of underarm or pubic hair, there could be a hormonal cause. I don’t want to worry you, because these are unlikely, but they should be discussed with your pediatrician.

There are ways to minimize the odor without buying antiperspirant for your 5-year-old. Frequent baths always help. Use a mild antibacterial soap and rinse thoroughly. Hydrogen peroxide (that’s the old-fashioned stuff in the brown bottle) mixed with water makes a great antibacterial solution. Splash it into the sweaty areas for a quick freshen-up, or put it in a spray bottle. There are chlorophyl drops you can get at the natural food store that can be added to food or water to deodorize from the inside out. They’re safe and may work well. Change sweaty clothes often. Sometimes it’s the clothes, not the kid you’re smelling.

To put your mind at ease, ask Dad if he remembers being a stinky kid. We’re all born with a different body physiology that gives us that unique scent. That’s why your two boys don’t smell the same.

And finally, don’t sweat it — it’s all part of growing up.

~  The Mamas

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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2 responses to “My 5-Year-Old Smells … Bad”

  1. Cheryl

    antiperspirant for a 5 year old is RIDICULOUS GIVE.ME.A.BREAK.

  2. Elle

    Not so ridiculous, we are just starting to deal with this. I have a 5 year old who is 49 in tall and weighs 70 pounds. He bathes regularly and we are wondering if he might need deodorant, because he is starting to smell in his arm pits. Bizarre? maybe. but its nice to see we aren’t alone.

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