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6 causes of vaginal odor — because yes, it happens to us all

Whitney Coy is a freelance writer and editor based in Columbus, OH, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. She writes frequently for SheKnows, as well as several other websites. She writes on topics including parenting, pets...

When your vagina doesn't smell like itself, something else might be going on

While feminine odor is not exactly something we like to discuss over dinner — and Lord knows those Vagasil odor-block protection wash commercials make the best of us cringe while in the company of the opposite sex — it's a fact of life and happens to everyone.

We all have a distinct "brand" that's a combination of the natural bacteria that reside in your vaginal tract, diet, hygiene, clothing choices, and gland secretions — so when your personal odor suddenly takes a turn for the worst, it's a little unsettling. Yes, you may want to ignore the smell and just pray that it goes away ASAP, but it's extremely important not to brush it off — a change in odor can actually be an indicator that you've got some health problems going on.

Here are five of the most common reasons (and one less common reason) that the smell of your vagina might start to change.

1. Bacterial vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis sounds like a big, scary term, but it’s actually very common. In fact, BV is the most common cause of vaginal odor, according to the Mayo Clinic. Every vagina is filled with naturally occurring bacteria, and BV is simply an overgrowth of that bacteria. According to Mary M. Gallenberg, M.D., OB-GYN for the Mayo Clinic, most women in their reproductive years will experience at least one case of BV. The cause is unknown, but unprotected sex and frequent douching can put you at a higher risk. Other symptoms include itching, soreness and discharge.

Dr. Nesochi Okeke-Igbokwe, an internal medicine doctor based in New York City and attending physician at NYU Langone Medical Center, confirms, "BV is an infection caused by an overgrowth of certain bacteria in the vagina. BV may cause a fishy, malodorous discharge. This odor is usually most prominent after sexual intercourse."

Some cases of BV will go away on their own, but Planned Parenthood recommends that all women with BV symptoms visit their doctor for treatment to prevent rare, but serious, complications. Treatment for BV is usually simple: Okeke-Igbokwe says, "The treatment for this is antibiotics."

More: Slang words for vagina ranked from bad to worst

2. Yeast infection

A yeast infection is also very common (and very uncomfortable!). They present much like BV, with the addition of a thick, white discharge. But here's the kicker: Yeast infections are often easy to miss because they don't have a very strong smell. Okeke-Igbokwe says, "A yeast infection is a very common fungal infection caused by the overgrowth of yeast called Candida. The vaginal discharge associated with yeast infections tends to have a cottage cheese-like appearance and can be odorless, though sometimes it can produce a mild odor that essentially smells like bread or yeast. The accompanying symptoms of a yeast infection may include vaginal itching, redness, burning and pain with urination or sexual intercourse. These infections are treated with antifungal medications."

Yeast infections don’t require antibiotics and instead can be treated with a one- or three-course vaginal anti-fungal treatment. Your doctor may also recommend a one-time oral anti-fungal treatment. Treatment for yeast infections has become very simple and can even be purchased over the counter. Most of these treatments tend to get messy, so it’s better to use them overnight. Gallenberg recommends you visit your doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms, but have never been diagnosed with a yeast infection, as well as if treatment doesn’t resolve the symptoms or you get four or more infections in one year.

3. Sexually transmitted infections

Some STIs can cause feminine odor, the most common being chlamydia and gonorrhea. Both diseases are common and easy to treat, but can cause serious complications if they go untreated. Unfortunately, both are also often undiagnosed because they may or may not produce symptoms. The most common symptoms of chlamydia and gonorrhea include painful urination and pus-like discharge, although an unpleasant odor is often present as well.

More: Vagina owner’s manual: What every woman needs to know

That's not all — Okeke-Igbokwe continues, "Trichomoniasis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the parasite trichomonas vaginalis. Women infected with this may have a greenish discharge with foul smelling odor accompanied by pain while urinating. This infection is also treated with antibiotics."

See your doctor immediately if you are experiencing any of these symptoms and avoid risk by abstaining from or using protection during sex.

Next Up: Pelvic inflammatory disease

Originally published April 2012. Updated January 2017.

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