Feminine odor, unfortunately, is one of those things that is shrouded in mystery, which makes most of us feel like we're kind of walking the path alone whenever something smells off. This probably stems from the fact that our vaginas and the smells they emit are not exactly something we like to discuss at happy hour or over dinner — but the truth of the matter is feminine odor is a fact of life and happens to everyone.
Here's what you need to know: We all have a distinct "brand" that's a combination of the natural bacteria that reside in our vaginal tracts, diet, hygiene, clothing choices and gland secretions. When your personal odor suddenly takes a turn for the worse, it's worth paying attention to, even if it's a bit unsettling. Yes, you may want to ignore the smell and just pray 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) the smell of your vagina might start to change.
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 Dr. Mary M. Gallenberg, OB-GYN at 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 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 antibiotics.
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.
A yeast infection is a very common fungal infection caused by the overgrowth of yeast called candida, Okeke-Igbokwe explains.
"The vaginal discharge associated with yeast infections tends to have a cottage cheeselike appearance and can be odorless, though sometimes it can produce a mild odor that essentially smells like bread or yeast," she adds. "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 antifungal treatment. Your doctor may also recommend a one-time oral antifungal 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 or if treatment doesn’t resolve the symptoms or you get four or more infections in one year.
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.
That's not all — "Trichomoniasis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the parasite trichomonas vaginalis," Okeke-Igbokwe continues. "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
A version of this article was originally published in April 2012.
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