Humans can detect axillary odor cues of an acute respiratory infection in others

  • Home
  • Humans can detect axillary odor cues of an acute respiratory infection in others
31 August 2022

Background and objectives Body odor conveys information about health status to conspecifics and influences approach-avoidance behaviors in animals. Experiments that induce sickness in otherwise healthy individuals suggest that humans too can detect sensory cues to infection in others. Here, we investigated whether individuals could detect through smell a naturally occurring acute respiratory infection in others and whether sickness severity, measured via body temperature and sickness symptoms, was associated with the accuracy of detection. Methodology Body odor samples were collected from 20 donors, once while healthy and once while sick with an acute respiratory infection. Using a double-blind, two-alternative forced-choice method, 80 raters were instructed to identify the sick body odor from paired sick and healthy samples (i.e. 20 pairs). Results Sickness detection was significantly above chance, although the magnitude of the effect was low (56.7%). Raters’ sex and disgust sensitivity were not associated with the accuracy of sickness detection. However, we find some indication that greater change in donor body temperature, but not sickness symptoms, between sick and healthy conditions improved sickness detection accuracy. Conclusion and implications Our findings suggest that humans can detect individuals with an acute respiratory infection through smell, albeit only slightly better than chance. Humans, similar to other animals, are likely able to use sickness odor cues to guide adaptive behaviors that decrease the risk of contagion, such as social avoidance. Further studies should determine how well humans can detect specific infections through body odor, such as Covid-19, and how multisensory cues to infection are used simultaneously. Lay Summary Researchers suggest humans evolved the ability to detect sickness in others, facilitating behavioral responses to reduce contagion risk, such as the avoidance of sick individuals. Our study suggests that humans can distinguish healthy from sick individuals with a naturally occurring respiratory infection by smelling body odors, but with limited accuracy.