Why Does My Vagina Smell? | Vaginal Odors And What They Could Mean

Fi, fie, fo, fum- is a smell in your vagina making you glum?

New smells in your vagina or changes in your discharge are nothing to turn your nose up at- they could be a sign of infection. However, not every vaginal odor means something is wrong. Here’s the down low on common vaginal smells and types of discharge, and what they could mean.

Not All Vaginal Smells Mean Trouble

Like any other body part, the vagina has a smell. Vaginal odor, along with discharge, is completely normal and is usually nothing more than a sign of good health. Familiarizing yourself with how your vagina typically acts and smells will help you detect changes that can indicate illness or infection. Here are some ways people might describe healthy vaginal odors:

  • Tangy/Fermented: The natural pH of a vagina is acidic and very similar to coffee, wine, or yogurt, which can range between 3.8 and 4.5 on the pH scale. The vagina coincidentally also carries the same bacteria found in yogurt, Lactobacilli, which keeps the pH low and prevents the growth of the bad kinds of bacteria. A sour, tangy smell, or something resembling sourdough bread, is simply a sign of this natural acidity and bacterial presence.You may also notice a tangy smell after sex, which could be a combination of sweat, other bodily fluids, and semen. Because semen has a higher pH than the vagina, it can sometimes temporarily change the smell in a vagina.
  • Coppery: A metallic smell could be a sign of blood and is common when you are near the menstrual stage of your cycle. It could also be a sign of bleeding after sex, which isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. However, if it’s constant, you should consider telling your doctor or health provider and ask for a Pap smear.
  • Sweet: Like tangy smells, a sweet odor is usually simply due to a bacterial fluctuation and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.
  • Skunky: No, you’re not high- sometimes vaginas can smell like weed. Your groin is full of apocrine sweat glands that secrete a milky fluid. When this fluid comes in contact with vaginal bacteria, it can create a smell that reminds you of Pepe Le Pew or your local dispensary, depending on where you live.
  • Vegetables: Much like the way chowing down on asparagus can make your pee pungent, your diet can also influence vaginal odors. Onions and garlic are two examples of foods that can echo in your vaginal smells. Again, this has to do with the smell of your sweat changing and then interacting with vaginal bacteria.

The amount of discharge you’ll have will vary depending on where you are in your cycle. Discharge that is clear or slightly cloudy is a sign that your vagina is healthy and cleaning itself, and it might be thinner and clearer during ovulation. Changes from discharge and smell norms could be an indication that you need to see a healthcare provider.

When To Get Checked Out

If your discharge has a very noticeable odor, including after sex, it may be a sign of infection. If it changes color or amount significantly, or is accompanied by burning, bleeding or spotting, itching, pain during urination or sex, or any sort of swelling and soreness, then it’s time to take a trip to the doctor. These symptoms may be accompanied by a change in your vaginal discharge smell. Some ways you could describe vaginal smells that are potential signs of infection include:

  • Chemical or Bleachy: Bacterial Vaginosis will sometimes smell like bleach. This is not in itself perfect evidence of infection, since buildup of urine in the underwear or around the vulva can also smell like ammonia.
  • Fouland/or Fishy: A piscine smell coming from the vagina should be regarded with the same suspicion as fresh fish that smells strongly “fishy”. Trimethylamine, the chemical compound responsible for the smell of rotting fish, is actually found in the vagina when certain infections are present. Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) and Trichomoniasis (Trich) are the two most common culprits for a fishy vaginal odor.
  • Rotten: A rotting smell coming from any part of the body is generally not a good sign, and your vagina is no exception. The most common reason for a putrid smell is a forgotten tampon. TSS is definitely still a thing, so if you have fever, diarrhea, confusion, or muscle aches accompanying a forgotten tampon, get thee to the ER stat.

As uncomfortable as it may be, there’s no need to sweat it or be embarrassed if you think there may be something abnormal going on in your vagina. Most infections are common, treatable, and these symptoms are rarely a sign of a more serious condition.

Common Vaginal Infections

The most common vaginal infections are usually accompanied by the above symptoms. Some are purely sexually transmitted, but the most common infections can happen with or without sexual contact.

  • Yeast infections are so common that nearly every person with a vagina will have one at some point. They are caused by a “friendly” fungus known as candida that always lives in your body. Certain conditions, such as taking antibiotics, hormonal changes from taking the pill or pregnancy, tampon use, and high blood sugar can cause an overgrowth of candida. This leads to thick, white discharge (many say it resembles cottage cheese), itching, and redness of the vulva.

Most yeast infections are easily treated with over the counter anti-fungal creams or prescription pills.

  • Bacterial Vaginosis, aka BV, is related to another friendly bacteria, Lactobacilli (the one we mentioned earlier that makes your vagina smell like yogurt). When the amount of this bacteria gets too low in your body, other bacteria often take over, leading to BV. Symptoms include discharge that is thick or whitish, or slippery and clear. A fishy odor is often present, especially during intercourse, and itching or burning is not usually a part of it. BV is also treated easily with oral or topical antibiotics.
  • Trichomoniasis is an extremely common STI, accompanied by burning, irritation, redness, vulva swelling, a yellow-green or grayish discharge, occasional fish odor, and pain during urination. Because it is transferred from partner to partner, both partners will need to be treated with antibiotics before resuming intercourse in order to prevent reinfection.
  • Chlamydia and Gonorrhea are STIs that do not always have symptoms, but can cause changes in discharge in some people. If you have new symptoms following a change in partners or unprotected sex, you may want to get an STI test to rule these two out.
  • Noninfectious vaginitis is not an infection but can have symptoms similar to one. This is just a fancy term for the reactions and allergies in the vaginal area that cause the skin around the vagina to become sensitive. Irritants in laundry detergent, scented tampons, and perfumed soap are common culprits, and the treatment is to simply switch to gentler products that don’t contain perfumes or other known irritants.

How Infections Happen

While your vagina is a magnificently strong organ that can squeeze out objects the size of grapefruits, the bacteria that naturally lives inside can be disrupted easily by outside factors such as:

  • Douching
  • Hormone changes (such as menopause or starting a new birth control pill)
  • Antibiotics
  • Sex
  • Pregnancy and breastfeeding
  • Poor hygiene
  • Wearing undergarments that don’t breathe (polyesters, nylons, etc)
  • Tampons (both organic & non-organic- because menstrual blood has a higher pH than the vagina’s natural pH, using a product that absorbs blood instead of collecting it can disrupt the pH of the vagina and encourage bacterial or yeast growth. Menstrual cups and menstrual discs, on the other hand, do not affect vaginal pH.)

People with diabetes or HIV may be especially vulnerable to infections anywhere, including in the vagina.

Don’t Be A Douche To Your Vagina

Doctors are all in agreement that if you douche, you are creating nothing but havoc for your vagina. Douching is a double whammy to your vagina, as it throws off the healthy pH levels at the same time that it robs the vagina of the helpful flora (bacteria) that prevent infection. This creates a perfect storm for bad things to happen, all in the name of getting rid of vaginal odor that is a sign of good health. Our advice to you: leave douches in the 1950s, where they belong.

Normalize Your Body

Good hygiene is essential to your vaginal health. That said, most vaginas have a smell, and that’s ok- not that traditional feminine products would have you think that. Take a stroll down the flowery, perfumed menstrual product aisle at your drug store and you will leave with the impression that your vagina is a stinky, gross problem that needs to be corrected with scented tampons, deodorant sprays and wipes, and douching.

Fragranced menstrual products were not invented with your health in mind, but that’s another story. Fragrances disrupt the vaginal pH and can irritate the delicate tissues in your vulva, so why risk it? Ask yourself if your vagina actually smells that strongly. If it does, inundating your body with chemicals is simply masking a warning sign from your body.

We’re not saying you need to start burning vagina-scented candles or to wear your vagina odor as perfume on your next date- though some swear by this as an aphrodisiac! Simply be kind to your body, listen to what it is telling you, and make informed choices.