chemo smell

Chemo Smell and What to Do About It

Chemo smell stinks. Literally. Many health care professionals say that they can smell an odor on the clothing and body of patients who are undergoing chemotherapy.  And caregivers complain about the odor also when they are doing the laundry of  chemotherapy patients.  Most say that the odor is a sour smell or a rusty metal odor.

The odor is on the patient’s skin and on the patient’s clothing and bedding as well.

Some Chemo Side Effects

There are some scientific facts about what chemotherapy does to cells that back up the notion of “chemo smell.”   Naturally, chemotherapy drugs are anticancer drugs and they affect both cancer cells and the other cells of the body. That’s why hair loss occurs in chemotherapy patients, because often, the hair follicles are affected.

According to the online “Health Encyclopedia” of the University of Rochester Medical Center, “some anticancer medicines cause the urine to change color (orange, red, green, or yellow). Also, it may take on a strong or medicine-like odor for 24 to 72 hours.”   Doctors recommend that patients tell them about this side effect and any other side effect that one experiences during chemotherapy.

Chemo Responses

The article states, drinking plenty of fluids will help you have good urine flow and help to prevent problems. This is especially true if you are taking medicines that affect the kidney and bladder. In addition to water, juice, soft drinks, broth, and soup, you may include ice cream, popsicles, and gelatin to get more fluids. Caffeine can act as a mild diuretic, but even coffee is better than no fluids.    “Chemotherapy’s Effects on Organs and Body Systems,”  Medical Reviewers:  LoCicero, Richard, MD and Sather, Rita, RN

So, indeed, chemotherapy changes the odors of the body and of bodily fluids.   Drinking plenty of fluids can help flush the odor and colors out of the urinary tract, and reduce body odor.

What Can a Caregiver Do? has had a few visitors to the website ask what can be done about “chemo smell” on the patient’s skin and on laundry.

Besides drinking a lot of fluids, fragrant bathing body wash and moisturizing cream could be used during bath time to reduce the odor of the skin. Fragrant shampoo could help with odor of the scalp.  Perfumes and deodorant should be used cautiously and only with the knowledge of the doctor or healthcare providers because some chemicals react with radiation treatments or chemotherapy drugs.

Take your deodorant/antiperspirant bottles and any creams or perfumes you use when you see the doctor and ask if these brands have any reactions to the treatments and medications you are taking. The odor on the body may persist for a day or up to three days, so it might be possible to schedule the use of fragrances for those days when the odor is detected, and not at other times.

Special Laundry Care

It is important that the laundry items of the patient, bed linens and clothing, should be washed separately from that of other family members in a washing machine.  Do not wash them with other clothes or bedding. If they cannot be washed right away, seal them in a plastic bag or sealed container.

Additionally, caregivers should use disposable plastic gloves when handling the patient’s laundry, particularly items that may have urine, vomit, or blood on them.  Caregivers should have a habit of washing their hands frequently when handling the patient’s clothing, bedding and other items for their safety and the protection of the patient.

To combat odors on fabrics, use a scented laundry detergent in the washer and scented dryer sheets in the dryer.  Spray with a product that removes odors like Febreze Fabric Extra Strength when the fabric is dry.  Then, store clothing or bedding in a drawer or closet that is open to fresh air.

American Cancer Society

The American Cancer Society advises chemotherapy patients, “Most of the drug waste comes out in your body fluids, such as urine, stool, tears, sweat, and vomit. The drug waste is also in your blood, and may be in other body fluids such as fluids from semen and the vagina. When chemo drugs or their waste are outside your body, they can harm or irritate skin. Other people and pets could be exposed to the drug waste for a few days if they come into contact with any of your body fluids. If using throw-away adult diapers, underwear, or sanitary pads, seal them in 2 plastic bags and throw them away with your regular trash.”

Learn more at the American Cancer Society about Chemotherapy Safety

Finally, when you reduce the chemo smell, you boost the comfort level of both caregiver and chemo patient. Though it requires extra steps to handle a chemo patient’s laundry, the added effort makes living with chemo a little better.

Anything that can help living with chemo, is worthwhile!

4 thoughts on “Chemo Smell

  1. I am diabetic and have finished 1 round of chemo for breast cancer. I have a rash across my neck, chest and my underarms are raw. I have been started on antibiotics. I smell horrible, almost like the flesh is rotting. What can i use?

  2. I have type 2 diabetes and the stank is here. My glucose is super high after 1 treatment. Taking that much sugar in my system is a horrible idea. Please add info about what to drink that isn’t soda or sugar free candies. All of the alcohol
    sugars in sugar free candies give you the runs! It’s bad enough seeing my controlled numbers go sky high let alone dealing with freaking chemo. Diabetics get cancer too.

  3. LindaSue,

    Having an allergic reaction to the odor is a new one for me. But I’ve had to deal with asthma myself and it can be difficult if not controlled. I try to stay away from anything that can trigger it.
    You may need to find a different caregiver, if that’s possible. If not you need to seek help from your Doctor or even the medical personal administering the chemo.
    Another thought is you could check with the American Cancer Society. They have a Cancer Helpline for questions. It’s by phone or Live Chat.
    The may can be of more help.

  4. What happens if the caregiver keeps having allergic, asthmatic attacks to the odor of the chemotherapy from the patient

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