After handling coins or other metal objects, you may notice a metallic smell on your fingers and assume that traces of metal are now on your hands. Research suggests it’s more complicated than that.
A metallic smell in your sweat or a metallic taste in your mouth also represents an interesting example of body chemistry at work.
While these smells or tastes are usually a temporary concern, knowing what may be triggering them may make these episodes a little less mysterious.
And for some of these causes, there are ways to change the scent to something a little sweeter than metal and minerals.
Read on to learn about the possible causes for metallic smells on your body or breath and what you can do about them.
If you’ve ever wrapped stacks of coins or rummaged through a change jar or coin collection, you may have noticed that your fingers retained the smell of copper or other metal. The same phenomenon can occur after touching a metal stair railing or other metallic surface.
Your first instinct may be to assume that you’re smelling metal that rubbed off onto your hands.
However, a 2006 study published in a journal from the German Chemical Society found that the metallic smell is actually a type of body odor that emerges when certain oils in the skin break down after contact with metal objects or metallic chemicals.
People with a heightened sense of smell may also pick up a metallic scent from blood on the skin, as blood contains iron and other minerals.
Washing your hands with soap and water is often enough to make the metallic smell go away. If that doesn’t do the trick, try scrubbing your hands with a paste made of baking soda and vinegar and then washing them again with soap and water.
If you know you’ll be handling coins or other metal objects, wear gloves to keep the metal from activating oils glands in your skin.
Changes in body odor occur throughout your life. This can be due to hormonal changes, such as puberty, or other factors, including your:
- personal hygiene
When you sweat, clues about your diet may also be revealed in how your sweat smells. For example, your sweat may smell a little more pungent if you’ve recently been eating onions or spicy foods.
But if you notice a metallic or ammonia-like smell on your sweat, it may be due to what you’re not eating.
When long-distance runners and other athletes notice a metallic odor during or after a workout, it may be because their bodies are burning protein rather than glucose for fuel.
When this happens, the body breaks down ammonia into urea, which is excreted in urine. However, ammonia levels can still build up, so the body removes the excess ammonia — which is toxic — through sweat.
Depending on the individual, that ammonia-rich perspiration may smell more like ammonia or metal. If you’re on a high-protein, low-carb diet, you may experience this after a strenuous workout.
If you experience a metallic taste in your mouth or a metallic scent on your breath, it could be due to a wide range of causes. Some of the more common origins include the following.
Improving your dental hygiene and treating gum disease or any other dental health problem should make the metallic taste disappear.
Certain prescription medications can trigger many changes in smell and taste. These include:
- fenoprofen (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug)
- muscle relaxants
- antimicrobial and antiviral drugs
Multivitamin and mineral supplements can also trigger changes in smell and taste. Once you stop taking the medication, the metallic smell usually goes away.
Radiation therapy and chemotherapy treatment for cancer can bring on a metallic or bitter taste, as can certain kinds of cancer of the head and neck.
Sugar-free gum or mints may help. Rinsing your mouth with a mouthwash made of baking soda, salt, and water before eating may help make food taste better.
Hormonal changes brought on by pregnancy can trigger many unusual symptoms. Having a metallic taste in your mouth is one of them.
Generally, this problem is worse during the first trimester. Sweets and saltine crackers may help reduce that metallic taste.
Staying hydrated is also especially important, not just for you and your baby, but to avoid dry mouth, which can also contribute to unpleasant taste sensations.
Exposure to chemicals, especially lead, can cause a metallic taste in your mouth and lead to many dangerous complications.
If you think your drinking water may be contaminated, contact your local water utility to see about having it tested for lead and other metals.
Vascular dementia and neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, can trigger a condition called dysgeusia.
Symptoms of this taste disorder include:
- a metallic or other unpleasant taste in the mouth
- wrong taste perceptions
- no taste perception at all
This problem can be chronic. Experimenting with seasonings may help.
Some people can detect a metallic smell or other odors that can’t be smelled by anyone else around them because the smells aren’t real.
This condition is called phantosmia, an olfactory hallucination that’s often triggered by a sinus condition. Other causes include:
- dental problems
- exposure to smoke or air pollution
- cancer treatments
Less common causes include:
- head injury
- neurodegenerative disease, such as Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease
Phantosmia brought on by a sinus condition or other temporary health problem will usually disappear when your condition improves.
When a metallic smell on your body or breath is the result of an underlying medical problem, you’ll likely have other symptoms that should prompt a visit to a doctor.
Gum disease, for example, can cause bleeding gums, while neurodegenerative diseases are accompanied by memory or thought problems or movement disorders.
If a metallic smell is your only symptom, and you can rule out the obvious triggers like medications, pregnancy, or exercising after consuming too few carbs, tell your physician.
A metallic taste in your mouth is also a symptom to share with a dentist. While a metallic smells cause may be benign, it’s worth investigating in case a serious underlying condition is present.
A metallic smell on your body is typically a type of body odor triggered by handling copper or other metals. It can also result from your body burning protein rather than glucose during a workout.
A metallic taste in your mouth could be a sign of something simple, like a multivitamin packed with minerals, or it could be the result of cancer treatment or dementia.
To figure out the cause, pay attention to any other symptoms you have and what you were doing prior to noticing that unmistakable scent of metal.
If it’s a common occurrence, tell a doctor and work together on a solution.