Chances are your vagina smells just fine, but if you notice an unusual vaginal odor, it might be related to these causes.
Fact: Having some type of vaginal odor is normal. Despite all of the marketing that tells you otherwise, there is likely nothing wrong with the way your vagina smells. It’s completely natural and normal for you to have some kind of vaginal odor. And no, that scent probably won’t be a field of wildflowers. It’s a vagina, not a perfume counter.
Chances are, you smell just fine. But if you’ve noticed a change in your vaginal odor that doesn’t go away, it’s worth bringing up with your doctor. Here are a few things that might cause your vagina’s natural scent to go awry.
What Is Vaginal Odor?
Vaginal odor is the smell that your vagina—and usually your discharge—gives off. A certain amount of vaginal odor is normal, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). But if the odor is strong and noticeable, it’s possible that you have an infection or other problem, ACOG says.
How and Why Does Vaginal Odor Happen?
There are a few things that might cause your vaginal odor to go awry:
1. You accidentally left a tampon in there.
It happens—and probably more often than you’d think, Lauren Streicher, M.D., a professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells SELF. Some people may put in a just-in-case tampon toward the end of their period and forget about it, don’t remember that they already have one in before putting in a new one, or forget and have sex with one in and it gets pushed sideways into the back of cervix, she says. “Every gynecologist has had the experience of a woman coming in with an odor, discovering it was a forgotten tampon, and feeling mortified,” she says.
2. You have a bacterial infection.
Bacterial vaginosis (usually just known as B.V.) is the most common vaginal infection in people ages 15 to 44, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and it happens when there is too much of certain bacteria in your vagina. This throws off the pH of your vagina.
Experts aren’t sure what causes B.V. or how some people get it, but they do know that it usually occurs in people with vaginas who are sexually active. People who douche are also at an increased risk of developing B.V.
The odor actually happens due to the change in your vaginal pH when the balance of good and bad bacteria down there is thrown out of whack, Jessica Shepherd, M.D., an assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology and director of Minimally Invasive Gynecology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago, tells SELF. Luckily, it’ll go away once B.V. is treated with antibiotics, Dr. Streicher says.
3. You ate something funky.
You’ve probably heard that eating pineapple or citrus fruits can make you smell sweeter down there, and that fried foods can make your vagina smell more strongly. “I hear this all the time, but it’s all anecdotal,” Dr. Streicher says. So there’s no scientific evidence behind this, but experts have certainly heard of it happening before.
If you find that your usual scent is off and you know you recently ate a bunch of very fragrant foods (like garlic) or anything that’s not normally in your diet—and the change bothers you—you can consider whether what you eat may be contributing. If you’re not sure whether the change in smell is due to food or something else, call your doctor to get checked out.
4. You recently had sex without a condom.
You might notice things smell a little different down there after sex, which makes sense. You’ve got your fluids mixing with another person’s fluids, and maybe some sweat too. Plus, semen has an elevated pH, Dr. Streicher says, and that can cause an odor to form. Typically, the smell will clear up on its own within a day or so—or after you shower—but if it persists, call your doctor.
5. You have your period.
You’ve probably found that your vaginal odor smells a little more intense when you’re bleeding, and that’s normal, Dr. Shepherd says. Blood has an elevated pH, and that can throw your vaginal flora off a little during your period. Usually it’s not a huge change in scent, and it goes away once your period wraps up, she says.
6. You have a yeast issue.
You probably associate yeast infections with a certain discharge, but they can also cause a particular odor to develop. OTC yeast infection medications should help clear up the infection—and smell, Dr. Streicher says—but if you’ve tried that once and it didn’t work, check in with your doctor.
7. You have trichomoniasis.
A stinky smell down there could signal an STI called trichomoniasis, Alyssa Dweck, M.D., a gynecologist in Westchester, New York, and assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, tells SELF.
Trichomoniasis is caused by a tiny parasite that moves between people during sex, and it’s actually pretty common, according to the Mayo Clinic. In addition to a foul-smelling vaginal discharge, it can make your genitals itch and cause painful peeing, though many people experience no symptoms.
8. You have another STI.
Gonorrhea and chlamydia can also cause foul-smelling discharge, says Dr. Dweck. And just like with trichomoniasis, you may not experience symptoms. If you notice any unusual discharge or have pain during sex or urination, see your doctor to rule out an STI.
9. You have pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
PID happens when sexually transmitted bacteria—possibly from an untreated chlamydia or gonorrhea infection—travel from your vagina to your uterus, ovaries, or fallopian tubes, according to the Mayo Clinic.
In addition to having heavy discharge that’s smelly, you might experience pain in your lower stomach and pelvic region, bleeding during or after sex, fever, chills, and painful peeing, per the Mayo Clinic. Smelly discharge and painful peeing or bleeding between periods can signal an STI, and prompt treatment of an STI can help prevent PID, so see your doctor right away if you’re dealing with any of these symptoms.
10. You worked out recently.
If you hit the gym and notice an unpleasant vaginal odor afterward, it’s probably due to trapped sweat down there, says Dr. Dweck. Tightly-knit fabrics that are meant to trap and wick away sweat can sometimes cause a musky smell. And remember: You don’t need anything crazy to clean your vagina—plain water or mild soap are truly all you need.
11. You’re wearing the wrong underwear.
The type of undies you choose matters. Certain materials trap in heat and moisture, affecting the overall balance of good and bacteria—and yes, your vaginal odor. The classic advice when shopping for underwear is to go for cotton, but there’s no scientific evidence that shows that synthetic materials (like polyester or silk) are bad for you.
Is Vaginal Odor Natural?
Yup! “When you look at what’s normal, it can have a mild or slight odor that’s not unpleasant,” Dr. Streicher says. “There shouldn’t be a strong odor, and it shouldn’t smell like the zoo or fish.” So if you feel like your discharge smells bad but not fishy or like a musky animal, you’re probably okay.
Vaginal odor is like sweat—everyone has their own scent, Dr. Shepherd says.
Different Types of Vaginal Odor
While there is some variation with normal vaginal odor, smells that are a tip-off that something is wrong can generally be divided into three camps: fishy odors, zoo-like smells, and yeasty scents.
If you’re dealing with a fishy scent…
It could be a sign of bacterial vaginosis. B.V. messes with the pH of your vagina and can create a bad, fishy odor in the process. But a fishy smell can also be a sign of trichomoniasis, the CDC says. That’s why it’s important to rope in your doctor for help figuring out what’s going on.
If it smells like a literal zoo…
It could be due to a forgotten tampon, and unfortunately, it really, really stinks. “A forgotten tampon causes the absolute worst vaginal odor,” Dr. Streicher says. The smell is usually caused by old blood, which has a bad, zoo-like scent when it oxidizes, Dr. Shepherd says. It can also change the pH of your vagina (which should be between 3.5 to 4.5), allowing it to become a breeding ground for different bacteria or an infection. While having a tampon lodged in your vagina stinks (literally), it’s luckily easy to remove during a visit to your gynecologist.
BTW: If the smell is musky but not overpowering, it could simply be due to hanging out in sweaty workout clothes too much, Dr. Dweck says.
If it smells like bread…
No shocker here: It’s likely due to a yeast issue. “It’s a yeasty smell,” says Dr. Streicher. “It’s not leave-the-room bad, but it has a characteristic scent.” The pH of your vagina doesn’t actually change when you have a yeast issue—it’s just that yeast has an odor. So if your discharge smells bad but not fishy, it could be a yeast infection.
How Can You Prevent and Get Rid of Vaginal Odor?
Keep in mind that ACOG specifically says that sprays, deodorants, and douches are “not recommended” and may even make things worse, so steer clear of those. Some other things you can do to prevent vaginal odor:
•Try to stay on top of your tampon use, especially during the end of your period. You can even set a reminder in your phone to take out that final tampon, if you tend to forget.
•Use condoms. Unprotected sex increases your risk of several conditions that can lead to vaginal odors.
•Aim to eat healthy. There’s not a clear-cut, absolute link between your diet and how your vagina smells, but Dr. Streicher says what you eat can be a factor in your vaginal odor. Plus, eating well is good for the rest of your body too.
•Change out of sweaty workout clothes ASAP. There’s no need to get rid of your favorite workout leggings, but be sure to shower right after exercising (a.k.a., don’t sit around in sweaty clothes).
•Invest in new underwear. If you notice an unpleasant change to your vaginal odor, try switching the material of the underwear you buy (i.e., if you normally wear silk, try cotton or polyester). Changing it up might just do the trick.
When to See a Doctor
If you’re worried about a weird or persistent vaginal odor, or even if you’ve noticed it and it’s not sitting right with you, it’s important to call your doctor. That’s especially true if you’re also dealing with things like itching, burning, irritation, or increased discharge on top of it, the Mayo Clinic says.
Again, having some kind of vaginal odor is normal. But when it’s intense and different from your usual, it’s time to rope in the professionals for help.
This article was written by Korin Miller and was published by SELF US