F.Birchman / MSNBC.com
By MSNBC contributor
updated 5/5/2005 3:09:39 PM ET 2005-05-05T19:09:39

Bad breath and other body odors are among the biggest sexual turnoffs, so much so that they can ruin relationships, according to results of the new Elle/MSNBC.com Sex and Beauty Survey. But before you send your partner packing, keep in mind that B.O. isn't necessarily one's fault — and it can almost always be remedied.

Of course, you may be in for a losing battle if you're dating a slob who doesn't own dental floss or who thinks that a biweekly bath is more than enough. Good personal hygiene is the No. 1 factor in smelling good.

"Everybody has body odor," says George Preti, a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia who studies human odors. "But how perceptive it is at a social distance is a function — in a normal individual — of how rigorous you are with your hygiene."

Bacteria and beyond
Bacteria cause body odor, which is why keeping clean is key. It's especially important to practice good hygiene in areas like the mouth, feet, underarms and genitals, which can be particularly odorous if bacteria are left to run amok.

"Different parts of the body smell different because there are different populations and types of bacteria that live there," explains Preti, who is also an adjunct professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania.

But sometimes the culprit is an underlying health problem, medication or even diet, says Preti, who sees patients who are plagued by body odor but can't figure out why.

Some people have an inherited metabolic disorder called trimethylaminuria, also referred to as "fish malodor syndrome" because affected individuals excrete a fishy smell in their sweat, urine and breath. Others have a condition called hyperhidrosis that causes them to sweat excessively, which can fuel odor when the sweat mixes with the bacteria. Certain medications, including anti-psychotic drugs and morphine, can promote sweating.

Infections are another source of foul smells. Women, for example, should suspect a problem if they notice a change in their vaginal odor, says Dr. Michael Broder, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at UCLA Medical Center.

"If there is a particularly strong odor that begins all of a sudden, it can be a sign of an infection like bacterial vaginosis," Broder says.

Yeast, urinary tract and sexually transmitted infections also may produce odors.

Onions, garlic can linger
Food, too, can cause body odor — and not just bad breath. While onions and garlic can cause immediate bad breath, once they're digested they can also lead to the release of odors from the skin, urine and lungs (causing another bout of bad breath), says Preti. Curry and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli can have the same effect.

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Dental problems like advanced gum disease are another source of bad breath, notes Eugene Antenucci, a dentist in Huntington, N.Y., and a spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry.

The same bacteria that cause morning breath also cause gum disease, in which pockets form in the gums, allowing the bacteria to flourish, he says. Good oral hygiene can help prevent the disease, but some people are predisposed to developing it because of genetics, diabetes or conditions that weaken their immune systems.

Bad breath can also result directly from conditions such as sinusitis, diabetes, acid reflux and kidney or liver failure. Smoking can contribute to the problem, as can age and hormonal changes.

A sensitive subject
So what should you do if you notice that your partner isn't smelling so sweet?

Keep in mind that the individual may not know there's a problem.

"Some people know they have it by the reaction of others," Preti says. "But people are often not aware of the odor they produce because they become adapted to it."

Bringing the sensitive issue up is the only way to deal with it, says Preti. Unless, however, it's not really a problem for you.

"Some people don't mind body odor as much," he says.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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