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We've all heard the reports about dogs saving their owner's lives because they could 'smell' that they had cancer, and now research by a Russian scientist show that humans might have a similar ability when it comes to STIs like gonorrhoea. However, isn't this risking adding one more misconception about STIs to an already considerably long list?
The science of scent detection
There is no doubt that scent detection has its merits and dogs have shown their ability to detect diseases quite accurately if trained correctly. Scientists have even tried to harness this power by attempting to build special machines that will be able to detect whether a person has diabetes or not, but it's unlikely that this will ever be seen as a conclusive diagnostic tool.
Although I believe that humans have some ability to detect olfactory messages, we may be too far removed from a point where we can instinctively trust what's being relayed to us via these means.
The research in question
I discovered the article about the research in question in the Daily Mail and it reports on a Russian scientist that proved that women are able to 'smell' whether a man has gonorrhoea or not. The research involved women smelling tight fitting shirts with cotton pads underneath the arms, after they'd been worn by men with gonorrhoea; men who've recovered from it; and those that have never had the STI.
Reportedly, the women found that half of the men with gonorrhoea had shirts that smelled 'putrid'. The healthy and recovered men also were rated much higher than their infected peers. According to the researchers, this proves that people, just like animals, are able to use their olfactory system to judge whether someone would make a good mate for them or not.
Potentially dangerous information
Other than the fact that the research provides interesting insight into the human ability to detect when something is not quite right, I don't think that people should assume that they can rely on their sense of smell to detect whether a person has an STI or not.
It's possible that the Neisseria gonorrhoea does alter certain functions within the body enough to the point where it can alter secretions produced by the body, but there is no way of knowing whether 'putrid' body odour could be the result of something else entirely different.
STIs such as gonorrhoea or chlamydia don't cause any noticeable symptoms, which is why people don't get treatment when they really ought to. I think it's highly unlikely that a smell would be enough of an incentive to prompt men to go for an STI test if they aren't experiencing any symptoms. Similarly I don't think women should assume that a nice smelling man is automatically safe to sleep with, without using the appropriate protection.
Testing should be the first port of call
Even doctors, when presented with a clear list of symptoms, require additional information provided by a laboratory test to conclusively say whether a person has an STI or not. So if you think that you may have an STI, do a test. Most STIs are still relatively easy to treat if they are detected early on, although they can develop into more serious conditions if they aren't taken care of soon.
STI testing for gonorrhoea will simply involve laboratory analysis or a urine sample or a swab of the area where the infection is believed to be present. You can request a general STI test or one simply focused on a specific condition from your doctor, GUM clinic or you may choose to request an online laboratory STI test. If you require any additional help or support about STIs, the people at Brook and the FPA, two sexual health charities, are always ready to help.