Understanding ‘fish odor syndrome’

On 9 September 2023 at 06:54

If your different WhatsApp groups don’t teach you anything, I advise you to exit them. Today, I learned about a new health condition from one of my groups. Every day, we discuss a wide range of topics, including health, money, relationships, parenthood, and more.

During our health discussions, one member educated us about a condition known as ’fish odor syndrome,’ which immediately caught my attention. I hope it piques your interest as well.

“Have you ever met or come across someone who has a fish-like smell and wondered what’s wrong with them?” she asked, before explaining what it is.

Well, there is actually nothing wrong with most of them or their hygiene. In fact, they are probably one of the most hygienic people you will ever meet.

People who smell like fish (the kind that cannot be washed off by soap and water) have a medical condition called Trimethylaminuria. This condition is caused by a build-up of the chemical triethylamine in the body.

When there is too much of this chemical in the body, the body then releases it through urine, sweat, breath, and sometimes through vaginal fluids (like discharge). Which consequently results in a strong fish smell.

Fish odour syndrome can be passed on from parents, but not always. Many individuals living with this condition struggle due to stigma and bullying, leading to feelings of isolation, embarrassment, and depression.

Let’s make an effort to raise awareness and educate ourselves and others. Show kindness, and always remember that we are all unique and beautifully made, she concluded.

Wanting to know more about the condition, I looked it up and this is what I found.

The National Health Service (NHS) defines Trimethylaminuria (TMAU) as a condition characterised by an ‘unpleasant’ fishy smell caused by faulty genes (FMO3) that a person inherits from their parents.

TMAU occurs when the body is unable to convert a pungent chemical (trimethylamine) produced in the gut when certain foods break down into a non-odorous chemical.

Also known as ’Fish Odor Syndrome’ (FOS), TMAU is a rare condition that only manifests when both parents are carriers. Therefore, a parent with TMAU can have an offspring with no symptoms, mild symptoms, or temporary symptoms of TMAU.

The accumulation of trimethylamine results in an unpleasant smell, typically reminiscent of rotting fish, affecting breath, sweat, urine, and vaginal fluids. These symptoms may be present from birth, although they usually emerge during puberty.

If you consistently experience an unpleasant body odor, gum disease, urinary tract infections (UTI), or bacterial vaginosis, the NHS recommends consulting a general practitioner for possible TMAU testing.

According to the NHS, there is no cure for TMAU, but certain precautions can minimize its effects. These precautions include avoiding foods such as cow’s milk, seafood, shellfish, eggs, beans, peanuts, liver, kidney, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, peas, and soya products, as well as supplements containing ’lecithin,’ as they may exacerbate the odor. Pregnant or breastfeeding individuals are advised to consult a dietitian before making dietary changes.

Individuals with TMAU should avoid strenuous exercises that induce sweating, as sweating can worsen the condition. Adopting relaxation measures to alleviate stress is also recommended.

Specialists suggest using slightly acidic soap or shampoo with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5 when showering. Additionally, individuals with TMAU should use antiperspirants and wash their clothes frequently.

In some cases, doctors may recommend short courses of antibiotics (typically five days of treatment) to reduce the amount of trimethylamine produced in the gut.

Furthermore, taking specific supplements like charcoal or riboflavin (Vitamin B2) can help manage TMAU.

Professionals at the Cleveland Clinic point out that individuals inheriting trimethylaminuria often grapple with significant psychological and social challenges, including isolation, depression, and frustration. Seeking emotional support from a counselor is strongly recommended in such cases.