Rule number one: Don’t panic.
At least once in your life, you’ve probably wondered, why does my vagina smell? Then you’ve typed “how to get rid of vaginal odor?” into the search bar. But let’s get one thing straight right now: your vagina should have a little odor.
“Just like the gut, the vagina has its own microbiome, full of different bacteria and yeasts, many of which are very useful,” says Mary Jane Minkin, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut. That’s right, these bacteria give your vagina a unique odor.
For those unfamiliar with the natural smell of the vagina, the acidic pH that naturally exists in the vagina can make it smell a little sour and sometimes even a little musty, says Christine Masterson, M.D., an obstetrician/gynecologist and head of the Maternal and Child Services division at Summit Medical Group. “But it shouldn’t be an overwhelming odor,” she adds.
Nonetheless, sometimes you’ll smell an odor that’s a little different than normal. Dr. Minkin says the cause of the odor can be as innocuous as sweating or more serious, such as an infection, so it’s worth taking a deep breath (yes, really), especially if the unusual smell is accompanied by symptoms like itching or discharge.
Want to know what unusual odors are below? See if your odor is on this list to find out the possible causes, as well as today’s little PSA:Either way, don’t hesitate to get it checked out by a professional.
Could be: Bacterial vaginosis (BV)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most likely culprit behind the odor is bacterial vaginosis, which is the most common vaginal infection in women between the ages of 15 and 44. Dr. Minkin says the infection creeps in when the vaginal pH gets out of control due to an overgrowth of “bad” bacteria.
Possible yeast infection
Most yeast infections don’t smell bad, but occasionally there’s a thick, cheese-like discharge that’s a nasty sign of itchiness and has a faint beer- or yeast-like odor. If you notice redness or burning around the vagina, or pain after urinating, this is likely the cause, says Dr. Minkin.
Dr. Minkin says diabetic women may notice this especially because yeast feeds on sugar, and diabetic women tend to have more glucose (aka sugar) in their vaginal discharge. See your doctor to find out what’s going on down there, and she may prescribe some antifungal medication or recommend something you can buy over-the-counter.
What it could be:Sweat and secretions trapped in your underwear
Two questions:Did you just sweat it out at the gym and you’re wearing synthetic underwear (like nylon or polyester)?
Athletic and non-breathable shorts can make sweat smell musky, says Dr. Minkin. It should go away after you shower (with just water or mild soap). To reduce future odors, switch to cotton underwear (or at least cotton lined) and don’t sit with sweaty clothes.
“Sometimes citrus fruits produce a sweet odor.”
It could be an old tampon.
Of all the odors emanating from your vagina, this is definitely one of the most worrisome. Tampons left in the vagina for a few days or more can give off a putrid or foul odor. She says, “This odor is caused by the overgrowth of bacteria in a confined space.”
To remove the string yourself, lie on your back or squat with one foot propped up on the toilet, then reach into your vagina with a clean finger to find the string. No luck? See your OB/GYN, who can do the job with a speculum.
One caveat, though:If left in too long, bacteria can sometimes lead to more serious infections that may require treatment. If you know you’ve left your tampon in for more than 8 hours and you have flu-like symptoms (fever, nausea, aches and pains), see your doctor as soon as possible.
It could be your period.
Dr. Minkin says that blood from your period can change the pH of your vagina, making it smell like copper or fine. You can wash your vulva with a non-irritating, unscented soap-just avoid overusing strong-smelling soaps, as they can further imbalance the pH, says Dr. Minkin. But otherwise, you’ve got to push through.
It could be: BV
There are a few different reasons why your vagina may give off the chemical smell of bleach or ammonia:Dr. Masterson says that bv usually smells like fish, but sometimes smells like ammonia.
It’s also possible that the odor is actually coming from your urine, especially if you’re dehydrated. Finally, Dr. Masterson says that intercourse (especially the low acidic pH of sperm) can trigger an ammonia smell, as can any lubricants and spermicides you may have used. Basically, you can wait a while to see if the odor goes away on its own. If it doesn’t get better after a few days, then see your OB/GYN.
This could be: diet or a yeast infection.
If you notice a sweet smell down there, you may not be particularly inclined to think that something is wrong (it’s better than the smell of rot, right?!) You’re absolutely right: Dr. Masterson says it’s usually diet-related. “Sometimes citrus fruits produce a sweet flavor,” she says.” “Asparagus and garlic can also change the way you urinate and excrete odors.”
That said, she adds that yeast sometimes produces a sweet odor, so see your doctor if you also have symptoms of a yeast infection.
When to see your doctor.
Women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, M.D., says that if you’re concerned about vaginal odor, you shouldn’t hesitate to see your doctor. However, if you want to put up with it for a little while, she says you can wait a few days to see if the odor you’re worried about goes away. If the odor persists longer than that, you should definitely call your healthcare provider-especially if it’s accompanied by other symptoms, such as discharge, burning, and itching.
Why is it so important to get your body checked? “Some untreated infections can spread to the uterus and fallopian tubes, which can lead to long-term problems, including fertility issues,” says Dr. Weld.
Finally, remember this: Â “You should never be embarrassed of your healthcare provider,” says Dr. Weld. “Vaginal issues are one of the common reasons women go to the doctor, so you’re certainly not alone.” If you feel like you can’t talk to your doctor about these things, Dr. Weld says it might be time to find a new one. She says, “Having an open and honest relationship with your doctor is vital to your overall health and well-being.”