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Aug 20, 2022


Vaginal odor can be embarrassing to discuss, but it is important to know what is normal and what is not. Understanding when things are abnormal will help you know when to seek medical help. A healthy vagina is a self-cleaning organ that maintains a good balance between yeast and bacteria at a pH of 3.8 to 4.5. When the yeast and bacteria composition changes, or the pH balance is disturbed, things can smell different down there.

What is a normal vaginal odor?

The vagina has a natural smell caused by the bacteria flora that keeps things in balance down there. Foods, medications, gland secretions, menstrual cycle, and our general health affect how the vagina smells. Vaginal odors are different for each woman, but most healthy vaginas have a mild odor. Other terms to describe normal vaginal odors include:  

  • Metallic or coppery – from blood during your period, light bleeding after sex, contact with semen
  • Bleachy or chemical odor – urine in underwear or urine around vulva as urine contains a byproduct of ammonia
  • Sour, tangy, fermented – from chemicals produced by good bacteria in the vagina
  • Bittersweet or sweet like molasses – from normal bacteria
  • Smoked herbal or earthy or pungent – when the glands in the vagina release fluid due to stress

A fibroid can be as small as an apple seed, as huge as a grapefruit, or even bigger in rare cases. Since fibroids are under hormonal control, they tend to grow during pregnancy when hormone levels are rising and shrink or stop growing at menopause.

What is an abnormal vaginal odor?

There are different causes of abnormal vaginal odor, but the most common ones include:

  • Poor hygiene

Vaginal odor is typically the first sign of poor hygiene. Unfortunately, improper feminine hygiene can lead to infections and vaginal odor. Vaginal hygiene is essential for maintaining a natural odor in the vagina. The groin has a lot of sweat glands, and it can smell musky down there without proper care. Also, the rectum is in close proximity to the vagina and sometimes, improper wiping after a bowel movement can transfer fecal matter and bacteria to the vagina. This can lead to odors, vaginal discharge, redness, and itching. Keeping the vagina clean, changing underwear, and changing pads and tampons frequently during periods can all help reduce the risk of bad odor caused by poor hygiene.

  • Forgotten Tampon

Leaving a tampon in for too long can cause more than a “rotten meat” vaginal odor. It can also cause a rare and life-threatening condition known as toxic shock syndrome (TSS). TSS is caused by the release of toxins from an overgrowth of staphylococcus aureus (staph) bacteria. Staph is normally present and harmless in the vagina. When the conditions are right, they multiply rapidly and release poisons into the bloodstream. The body then reacts to these toxins with a sharp drop in pressure, which deprives the body of oxygen and leads to death. A forgotten tampon typically smells putrid, like a decaying organism.


  • Vaginitis

Vaginitis, also known as vulvovaginitis, is an infection or inflammation of the vagina. It is characterized by pain, discharge, itching, and odor. It can affect the vulva, which is the external part of the genitals. It is common in women in their reproductive years and occurs when there is an imbalance in the yeast and bacteria normally present in the vagina. There are many types of vaginitis; however, the most common ones are:

  • yeast infection (candidiasis)
  • bacterial infection (bacterial vaginosis)
  • Trichomoniasis (caused by a parasite)

Vaginitis (mostly characterized by itching) can also be caused by hormonal changes, especially during menopause, pregnancy, or when breastfeeding.

Some women who are sensitive or allergic to products like sprays, douches, soap, detergents, and spermicides can experience itching, burning, and vaginal discharge, which can lead to vaginitis and odor.

Other symptoms of vaginitis are pain during intercourse and painful urination. Treatment of vaginitis depends on the cause of the problem. If you are allergic or sensitive to a product, then discontinuing the use of that product will resolve the issue. For hormone-induced vaginitis, your doctor might choose to treat with a hormonal cream like estrogen cream. BV and trichomoniasis is typically treated with antibiotics. Yeast infections can be treated with pills or creams.

  • Bacterial Vaginosis

Bacterial Vaginosis, also known as BV, is a type of vaginitis. It occurs when the natural bacteria in the vagina overgrows and gets out of balance. It is a result of an imbalance between the “bad” and “good” bacteria in the vagina. According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), bacterial vaginosis is the most common vaginal condition in women aged 15-44 and more prevalent in sexually active women. Most women with bacterial vaginosis have no symptoms, but those that do, describe the smell as fishy. Typically this “fishy” smell is accompanied by vaginal discharge, pain, irritation, itching, and burning, especially during urination. Sometimes, the “fishy” odor is stronger after sex. Douching, multiple sex partners, new sex partners, and not using condoms during sex can increase the risk of getting BV. Having BV can also increase the risk of having other potentially serious STDs. Sometimes, BV will go away without treatment, but treating with antibiotics reduces the chances of any further complications. If you smell something “fishy” down there, consult your healthcare provider for treatment.


  • Yeast infection

Yeast infection is a type of vaginitis that is common in women and causes vaginal odor. A yeast infection will typically smell yeasty or sugary and is often accompanied by a thick white discharge that can resemble cottage cheese. Sometimes the discharge can be watery with no smell. Yeast infections can also cause itching, burning, and redness of the vagina and vulva. Yeast infections can be treated with over-the-counter medications as well as prescription medication. It is important to check with your healthcare provider, especially if it is the first time you have symptoms, to make sure you get the right treatment.


  • Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis usually doesn’t appear with symptoms, but if you do have symptoms, they can include burning during urination, itching, soreness, and redness of the vagina and vulva. Trichomoniasis can also produce a foul-smelling gray-green discharge which smells even more “fishy” than BV. It is important to see your doctor for treatment if you suspect you have trichomoniasis. This infection is usually treated with a single-dose antibiotic. If you are diagnosed with trichomoniasis, you and your sex partner should be treated to reduce the chance of reinfection or spreading the infection to others.


  • Period

A menstrual period consists of shedding blood, an unfertilized egg, and the tissues lining the uterine. No wonder your vagina might have fluctuation odors as your period progresses. The time of your period, presence of bacteria, and acidity also affect the smell of your vagina during your period. A vagina can smell metallic at the beginning and end of your menstrual cycle. Generally, the smell of your vagina during your period is not noticeable to anyone but you. If you have a stronger than normal odor, it could be a sign of infection, especially if it is accompanied by unusual pelvic discomfort or vaginal discharge. Good hygiene, including frequently changing your pads and tampons, will help control unwanted odors and reduce the risk of infections.


  • Foods

Foods like onions, garlic, coffee, asparagus, smoked food, spices, broccoli, fried foods, cheeses, and sugar can change how the vagina smells. Some foods create a favorable environment for bacteria and yeast to thrive and smell. Others cause an imbalance of the natural bacteria and yeast in the vagina, also leading to abnormal vaginal odor. We don’t recommend cutting these foods out of your diet, but rather consuming them in moderation. The good news is that there are foods that do the opposite. Foods like pineapple, cinnamon, plain yogurt, watermelon, peppermint, cranberries, and celery are not only healthy but can also keep things smelling good and pleasant down there.


  • Cervical, Vulvar, and Vaginal Cancers

Cervical cancer is typically asymptomatic at the early stages. As the cancer advances, the cervix lacks oxygen, get infected, and begins to die. The infection leads to loss of dead cells and tissue through the vagina. This vaginal discharge is often bloody, pink, or brownish and can be described as smelling like rotten meat.

Vulval cancer is very uncommon; however, it develops on the female external genitals. It might appear as a lump on the vulva with persistent burning, itching, and tenderness. It might also look like a wart and come with abnormal bleeding. Vulval cancer often does not cause vaginal odor at the beginning but in advanced stage cancer, a vaginal discharge with a foul smell might be more common.

Vaginal cancer is typically a condition where malignant cells form in the vagina. One of the most common signs and symptoms of vaginal cancer is abnormal vaginal bleeding or blood-stained discharge with an unusual smell. Other symptoms include pain during intercourse, blood in the urine, frequent urination, vaginal lump, pain the pelvic area, and rectal pain.


  • Rectovaginal Fistula

Although very rare, rectovaginal fistula can be a source of vaginal odor. Rectovaginal fistula is an abnormal connection between the vagina, rectum, and lower portion of the large intestine. This causes bowel contents to leak through the fistula, allowing gas, pus, and stool to pass through the vagina. Rectovaginal fistula often causes foul-smelling vaginal discharge as well as recurrent vaginal and urinary tract infections. It can cause pain during intercourse as well as irritation/pain in the vulva, vagina, and anus. Rectovaginal fistula can result from injury during childbirth, inflammatory bowel diseases, Chron’s disease, radiation treatment to the pelvic area, and pelvic-area surgical complications.

How to prevent abnormal vaginal odor

Practice good hygiene like frequent showers, changing underwear, and changing pads and tampons when on your period. Avoid douching as that can interfere with the pH balance of the vagina and lead to infection. Avoid the use of sprays or perfumes near the vagina. Untreated vaginal infections can also lead to persistent vaginal odor and other complications. Be sure to see your healthcare provider to diagnose and treat any abnormal vaginal discharge.

How to treat abnormal vaginal odor

About 30 percent of vaginal odors will go away without any treatment. However, in the situation that the odor does not resolve, or if the odor is accompanied by an unusual discharge, itching, and burning, contact your healthcare provider. Untreated vaginitis can lead to infection that can potentially spread to the uterus and fallopian tubes and make it more challenging to get pregnant. Be sure to seek medical help if you are pregnant since vaginal odor has been linked to a higher risk of infection of the amniotic fluid, preterm birth, and low birth weight.

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