Most of the time, your vag’s odor is no biggie. And unless you’re experiencing an out of the norm scent that doesn’t go away, or could be described as rotten, fishy, or bread-like—then it’s time to see a doc.
Simple enough, right? Now let’s get into some common vaginal odors and what they could mean, along with all the signs and symptoms and how to get rid of vaginal odor.
What are the signs and symptoms of vaginal odor?
Well, the first thing to notice is that it’ll feel out of the ordinary from your regular scent (which you’re probably used to at this point).
“Vaginal odor that is abnormal may have a strong amine odor, from amines [a type of organic compound] which can cause it to have a slightly fishy odor,” says Jessica Shepherd, MD, an ob-gyn and women’s health expert based in Dallas, Texas.
Any change in discharge color, consistency, or burning when you pee could be potential red flags of certain types of infections (more on that below).
There’s also a chance that the scent can be from the oxidized blood (aka just blood that comes in contact with air) towards the end of your period, which is completely normal, too, and will go away as soon as your cycle wraps, adds Dr. Shepherd. Your vag’s scent will naturally fluctuate with your menstrual cycle, and any other hormonal changes, like pregnancy, because different levels of hormones could change your pH, discharge, or vaginal odor. If you’re experiencing a rare vaginal odor outside of those instances though, keep reading, because it might be something to run by your gyno, Dr. Shepherd says.
These are the types of vaginal odors to be on the lookout for…
A super-strong smell that resembles rotting food is probably thanks to a tampon that’s been left in for a few days, says Alyssa Dweck, MD, an ob-gyn in Westchester County, New York. A combination of old blood, bacteria, and vaginal secretions stuck in the tampon create the unmistakable odor, she explains.
How to get rid of it: If this sounds like what you’ve got going on, don’t be embarrassed. Both Dr. Minkin and Dr. Dweck say that it happens all. the. time. If you’re not able to remove the tampon yourself—it might be too far up to reach—make an appointment with your gynecologist. Once they help you get it out, the odor should improve right away, says Dr. Dweck.
If you notice a strong, fishy odor coming from your vag, you could have bacterial vaginosis, aka BV, says Dr. Minkin. BV is an infection caused by an imbalance of the good and bad bacteria in the vagina. You might also experience a white or gray discharge, burning when you pee, and itching around the outside of the vagina if you have BV, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
On the other hand, if you have a fishy smell and green or yellowish discharge, vaginal itching and burning, and pain when you pee or have sex, you could have trichomoniasis, a common STI.
How to get rid of it: Either way, don’t stress. Just see your gyno so they can check it out and prescribe antibiotics if needed. And whatever you do, please don’t try to solve the problem by douching, says Dr. Dweck. It’ll only further upset your vagina’s pH (the acidity level that keeps the good bacteria up in there happy), and the practice is linked to hormonal disruptions, chronic disease, and reproductive and developmental problems as well as heightened risk of ovarian cancer.
Your regular vaginal pH should be less than 4.5, which is kinda acidic, but it’s what helps keep bad bacteria and yeast from overgrowing in there.
“Probiotics help to keep the vaginal tract maintained as well as help with the prevention of infection,” Dr. Shepherd says. (Try something like Happy V Prebiotic + Probiotic supplement to keep things status quo pH-wise and keep BV and yeast infections away, especially if you have recurrent ones.)
Smell yeast-y, like you’re baking a loaf of sourdough down there? Then you probably have a yeast infection. Other telltale signs include cottage cheese-like discharge, and intense itchiness of the vagina and vulva, says Dr. Minkin.
Yeast infections usually occur when lubrications, spermicides, antibiotic use, or even pregnancy allow the normal amount of yeast in the area to overgrow, according to ACOG. Since warm and wet environments are a good place for yeast to grow, you can also get ’em from working out and sitting in your sweaty underwear (we’ve all been there) or wearing a wet bathing suit, adds Dr. Minkin.
How to get rid of it: The good news? Yeast infections are no biggie. Just check in with your doc to confirm your diagnosis. Most yeast infections can be cured with OTC anti-fungal medications, like Monistat, but you can also get a prescription from your gynecologist, says Dr. Minkin.
An odor that can only be described as really, really bad accompanied by a fever of 100.4 or higher, pain in the lower abdomen, or painful sex, means you could have pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. PID is usually caused when the bad bacteria from STIs like gonorrhea and chlamydia move from the vagina or cervix into the uterus and other reproductive organs.
How to get rid of it: If you suspect you might have PID, call your doctor ASAP so they can prescribe you an antibiotic. If left untreated, it can cause infertility and chronic pelvic pain.
FYI: Experiencing a chlorine or bleach-like scent after sex is nothing to worry about. It’s most likely due to the particular lubricant or condoms you’re using, says Jennifer Wider, MD, a nationally renowned women’s health expert.
How to get rid of it: Try an unscented lube or a different brand of condoms if it the smell really bothers you.
If your vagina’s scent du jour is vaguely metallic during your period, you’re all good. When the blood (aka your uterine lining) exits your body, it can give off this smell, but it’s not unhealthy, says Dr. Wider.
How to get rid of it: Not feelin’ it? You can try to get rid of the scent by using a pH balancing gel like RepHresh, says Dr. Minkin. They’re designed to make the vagina more acidic and assure that odor-causing bacteria doesn’t grow.
A healthy vag’s scent can vary based on how much you sweat. So after an intense spin class, don’t be alarmed if your lady bits smell a ‘lil muskier than usual. Just like your pits, your vulva has sweat glands that create moisture, which can lead to a stronger odor says Dr. Wider.
How to get rid of it: FWIW, this one is nothing to worry about either. But if you want to feel a little fresher, try using a pH balancing gel or taking a shower to wash away the excess sweat, suggests Dr. Minkin.
Though there’s no science to prove this, your diet can affect the taste and scent of your vagina. That’s why you’ve probably heard your friends suggest eating pineapple before someone goes down on you (me to those friends: Mind ya business). Citrus fruits like oranges, pineapple, and grapefruit have been known to sweeten the smell and taste of vaginal fluids, confirms Dr. Wider. But let’s not stress about smells before getting some action. Your girl is perfect just the way she is.
Strong-smelling, pungent foods like onions and garlic can make your vagina smell like them, too. That’s because the food’s scent gets excreted by sweat glands all over your body, including your vulva, and could also be present in your vaginal fluids, says Dr. Dweck. Your pee could also come into play with certain food like asparagus, which is known to give urine a strong smell. Since your urethra is so close to your vagina, the smell of the pee could contribute to vaginal odor, explains Dr. Minkin. Again, don’t let this keep you from eating all the garlic bread. The smell of your vulva is NOTHING to be ashamed of.
Alright, so this one is less common, but some people do complain of a cheese-like odor coming from their crotch. This scent isn’t caused by one particular thing, says Jackie Walters, MD, an Atlanta-based ob-gyn and author of The Queen V: Everything You Need to Know About Sex, Intimacy, and Down There Health Care. It could be an infection, or a combination of factors like a yeast infection coming into contact with a lubricant, or trichomoniasis coming into contact with a condom, she explains.
How to get rid of it: Go see your gyno to get to the bottom of it.