Vaginas are like snowflakes — they’re all unique. But one thing they have in common is that everyone experiences vaginal odors. Most of the time, it’s not cause for concern — it’s just par for the course and a totally natural part of having a vagina (they are supposed to smell like vaginas, not flowers or citrus or multi-purpose cleaners, after all). But for understandable reasons, many of us get concerned that a vaginal odor could mean there’s an underlying medical issue — and it’s always good to listen to your body and have a conversation with a medical professional if something feels, smells or looks off to you.
That concern is sometimes warranted — certain vaginal odors are an indication it’s time to schedule an appointment with your OB-GYN because something may be amiss. But how do you know when an odor is completely normal and when it’s time to have a chat with your doctor? Here are six causes of vaginal odors — and which ones are a sign you should check in with your doctor.
Menstruation & post-sex bleeding
“During or immediately following a period, the vagina may smell metallic due to iron from the blood and tissue breakdown in the uterus,” Dr. Foye Ikyaator, a physician, tells SheKnows. Ikyaator explains that when there’s blood in the vaginal canal, this breakdown releases iron. When bleeding occurs during or after sex, it may also be accompanied by a metallic odor.
Dr. Sadia Sahabi, an OB-GYN at CareMount Medical in New York, explains that the vagina is located in close proximity to the groin, which is home to sweat glands. “This means the vagina can smell similar to armpit odor or even have a more sophisticated smell when the sweat mixes with vaginal secretions,” Sahabi tells SheKnows.
Ikyaator notes that stressed sweat glands can produce fluids that smell like body odor or smell “skunkish.” She explains that there are two types of sweat glands: apocrine and eccrine glands. The former are located in the armpits and groin. “When [the apocrine glands] are stimulated to produce, a milky fluid is produced, which is usually odorless, but in the vagina that is a host for vaginal bacteria, the fluid can convert to malodorous aroma,” Ikyaator explains.
The presence of lactobacilli can cause the vagina to smell “tangy” or like fermented cheese, Ikyaator says. This is due to the presence of lactobacilli, which is a good bacteria because its presence keeps bad bacteria out. “[The vagina] may smell tangy due to the acidity of the mucous produced, which protects against overgrowth of bad bacteria,” she adds.
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Although bacterial vaginosis is common, it’s a complex and poorly understood condition, Sahabi explains. A “fishy” odor is the smell most commonly associated with bacterial vaginosis, and other symptoms include vaginal itching and a gray-white-green discharge. If you have any or all of these symptoms, it’s time to consult with your doctor.
“Bacterial vaginosis basically means abnormal vaginal flora,” she says. “It’s not an infection by one isolated bacteria. When there’s a shift or reduction of hydrogen peroxide-producing lactobacillus species, other anaerobic species, such as Gardnerella vaginalis, overgrows.”
Sahabi explains that this is why douching is bad for the vagina — the harsh chemicals kill off the good bacteria and can increase your risk for developing bacterial vaginosis. Although it’s not an STI, people affected by bacterial vaginosis are more likely to acquire an STI.
Trichomoniasis a sexually transmitted infection that can be easily treated, but you’ll need to seek medical care. Like bacterial vaginosis, Sahabi says that the odor associated with trichomoniasis is a “fishy” smell.
“Other symptoms associated with trichomoniasis infection include yellow-green frothy vaginal discharge, vaginal spotting, genital burning and pain with sex,” she says.
Retained foreign materials
Forgotten tampons and condoms can result in an odor that smells like rotting or decay. If this happens to you, Sahabi says to remove the tampon or condom yourself if you can reach it. If you can’t, it’s time to get to the doctor as quickly as possible.
Although vaginal odors probably aren’t everyone’s favorite topic, it’s important to talk (or at least read) about what’s going on so you realize you’re not alone and there are healthy (non-douching) solutions out there.
A version of this story was published May 2019.
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