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Ask JHP: The Person I’m Helping has Bad Body Odor!

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Dear JHP:

I’ve been volunteering at a local food bank for a couple of months now, and during that time, a couple of people have come in that smell really, really, bad, often smelling like they have peed all over themselves or even pooped their pants.  This isn’t just body odor.  It’s so bad that I have trouble concentrating.  What should I do?

— Holding My Nose

There are a couple of different issues here.  The first is that the body odor is so bad that you’re finding it difficult to help these people, and the second is a concern about the people’s safety and quality of life, considering their hygiene.  Let’s deal with them one at a time.

For your immediate concern, there are a couple of things you can do.  The first is an old social work trick that is adapted from the days when people typically carried a cloth handkerchief.  Back in the old days, the person concerned about the odor would saturate a handkerchief with their favorite perfume or cologne and hold it near their nose.  These days, you can do something similar while being far less obvious.  Keep a small vial of a solid perfume or an essential or fragrance oil handy, and if you are having problems with a person’s strong body odor, dab a drop or two just under your nose to mask the unpleasant scent.  Air fresheners can also be useful, but keep in mind that you may trigger other peoples’ fragrance sensitivities.

As a helper, the larger issue is probably ‘what is causing the person to have hygiene issues?’  Sometimes its simple lack of access to laundry and personal hygiene facilities, in which case your food bank almost certainly has soap and deodorant and toilet paper (and sanitary napkins!) available.  Sometimes simply handing the person a change of clothes and hygiene supplies and asking him or her politely to go clean up in the restroom will end the problem.

In other cases, especially with what appears to be urinary and even bowel incontinence, the person may be suffering from a medical disorder including mental health disorders.  If that appears to be the case, you might want to talk with a regular staff member at the food bank to get some guidance on how they refer people to health services, and then either do the referral yourself or ask regular staff to do so, in accordance with the agency’s policies.

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