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When Doctors Used to Smell

by Ron Kurtus (updated 21 February 2012)

At one time, family physicians used their sense of smell to help diagnose the illness or disease of a patient. That practice has gone by the wayside in the past years.

Perhaps it would be a good idea if doctors would learn and use this technique again.

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions. Health Disclaimer

Smelling a disease

When you are sick or have some ailment, your body chemistry changes in order to fight the illness or as a response to some disorder. Changes in body chemistry can be detected in the blood, urine and perspiration of the person.

A sick person's urine and perspiration have distinct odors that are different than normal.

You can smell what you ate

The smell of your urine and perspiration are also affected by what you eat and drink. For example, after eating asparagus, your urine gets very smelly. Also, you can smell the distinct odor coming from a person who has been drinking alcohol excessively the night before.

Mothers know their babies

Test have been done to show that were able to identify their babies, simply by the child's smell. Also, a mother can often tell if her baby is sick by smell.

Doctors smelled their patients

Family doctors used to be able to tell what ails a patient by including how the person smelled, during the examination. (Of course, this was also done in the times when doctors actually made house calls.) Ailments result in the body giving off distinct odors. For example, apparently liver problems result in an almond odor.

Modern techniques

The present techniques to determine what ailment a person has consists of a cursory exam and then a series of chemical tests, perhaps along with x-rays and other high technology examinations.

Not all aids used

During the physical exam, the doctor may ask questions and look and touch areas of concern. This is where using smell to aid in the examination seems to have diminished or gone away completely. One reason is that doctors are not taught this technique in school anymore.

Dependence on measurements

There is a much greater dependence on laboratory measurements to determine results. This standardizes the examinations and also relieves the doctor of liability due to faulty judgment.

Unfortunately, dependence on laboratory results may often miss other indicators that can point to an ailment. Diagnosis of disease and other human problems is somewhat of a science, but it is so complex that in reality it is an art.

Advantages of using smell

It is obvious that including using the smell of a person as an aid to diagnosis can only help the accuracy. But there is another advantage.

The medical profession has become so impersonal that perhaps using something like smelling the patient can help to bring together a closer doctor-patient relationship.


People smell different when sick, and doctors used to include how the patient smelled as part of their examinations. Presently, diagnosis is dependent in on lab results. Including how a person smells in the diagnosis of an ailment not only would improve accuracy, but it would also improve the doctor-patient relationship.

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