Can You Really Get Sick from Smelling Dirty Socks?

dirty socks
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A man in China had a habit of walking home from work every day, taking off his socks and… taking a great big whiff of them, according to news reports.

Bizarre? Yes. But harmful? Well, according to a video posted on the Chinese platform Pear Daily, also yes. The video says that the 37-year-old man was hospitalized for chest pain, and was diagnosed with a fungal infection in his lungs — an infection that his doctors attributed to fungal spores that he had inhaled from his socks.

But is it even possible to get an infection like this from smelling socks?

Technically, yes — but it's very unlikely that something like this would happen, said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious-disease specialist at Vanderbilt University who was not involved with the Chinese man's case. Indeed, Schaffner noted that in his "long clinical experience," he'd never heard of a case like this. The case is "very interesting, if true," he added. [27 Oddest Medical Case Reports]

However, the lack of details about the case in local news reports, such as what kind of fungus caused the infection, makes Schaffner "kind of dubious to start with,” he said.

Biologically, it's possible for someone to develop a lung infection by inhaling fungal spores that had built up heavily in someone's socks, Schaffner told Live Science.

Indeed, lung infections from inhaling fungal spores are well-documented. Cave explorers, for example, run the risk of an infection called histoplasmosis, which is caused by inhaling fungal spores that can be found in bat droppings. And inhaling coccidioides fungal spores — which are found throughout the western and southwestern United States — can cause a flu-like infection called valley fever.

"We don’t live in a sterile world, we're surrounded by bacteria and fungi all the time," Schaffner said. That doesn't mean we're definitely going to get sick, though. What makes the Chinese man's case different, though, is that he's said to have "put the source [of fungus] right up to his nose and inhaled quite frequently, in unusually large doses and repeated doses, [which would have] made him more susceptible to actually developing an illness,” he said.

There's also not much known about the patient himself, based on the available reporting. For example, the man could have had a weakened immune system that would've made him more susceptible to such an infection, Schaffner said. The man's doctor said in local news reports that the man likely did have a weaker immune system, and this was due to a lack of rest because he was looking after a child.

But Schaffner said that he found that explanation "rather thin." That's not typically a reason doctors would consider a patient to be immune-suppressed, he said, "so [when] I saw that, I raised my eyebrows."

In any case, the whole situation "reinforces the notion that one ought to launder ones socks frequently rather than trying to make a daily assessment as to whether you want to put them on again for the seventeeth time," Schaffner added.

Still, the occasional sock-smeller — you know, the person who grabs a sock for a quick is-this-clean check before getting dressed — can rest easy, and need not fear a fungal infection.

"Not to worry," Schaffner said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Yasemin Saplakoglu
Staff Writer

Yasemin is a staff writer at Live Science, covering health, neuroscience and biology. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Science and the San Jose Mercury News. She has a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Connecticut and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.