Why do we have a nose and not just two holes? © Getty Images

What does disease smell like?

Five diseases with telltale odours - though you might not smell them yourself.

Joy Milne is a ‘super-smeller’. These people have a superior sense of smell and are sometimes sought after by perfume or wine manufacturers.

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For Joy, however, her sensitive nose meant that she detected an unusual odour on her husband, Les. Initially she thought that perhaps he wasn’t showering enough, but 12 years later he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She only made the connection between the condition and the aroma after noticing the same smell on people at a Parkinson’s disease support group.

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She has since worked with scientists at the University of Manchester to identify the chemicals underlying what she says is the characteristic smell of the condition, which could help lead to earlier diagnosis. Joy is now the linchpin for ongoing smell research. This is what she says about some common diseases:

1

Parkinson’s disease

Musk scents were originally derived from the Musk deer © Getty Images
Musk scents were originally derived from the Musk deer © Getty Images

This is a musky smell. It can become acrid due to a build-up of bacteria and yeasts in the sebum, the greasy substance that is secreted by our skin and overproduced in Parkinson’s.

2

Alzheimer’s disease

People with Alzheimer's disease develop a smell like rye bread © Getty Images
People with Alzheimer’s disease develop a smell like rye bread © Getty Images

This has a milder human musk, like rye bread. The skin has a creamy yeast smell which can become stronger as the disease progresses.

3

Tuberculosis (TB)

Beer ‘tastes better’ with music © iStock
The smell of stale beer is disappointing in a pint, but a useful warning sign in people © iStock

TB has an odour like stale beer. The smell is present in the breath, and changes as the disease progresses. The skin smells like “wet brown cardboard and brine”.

4

Diabetes

Usually a tasty combination, citrus and pineapple could hint at diabetes © Getty Images
Usually a tasty combination, citrus and pineapple could hint at diabetes © Getty Images

Diabetes has a sweet smell with the combination of citrus and creamy pineapple. The smell can vary throughout the day, reflecting fluctuations in glucose levels and how well the diabetes is controlled.

5

Cancer

Depending on the type, a tumour could smell of fungus © Getty Images
Depending on the type, a tumour could smell of fungus © Getty Images

This smells of yeast or fungi, and different types of cancers have their own smell. It may also be possible to smell the difference when a patient is in remission following treatment.


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