We usually avoid discussing this awkward topic, yet we all want to know: why do vaginas smell, and what is normal vaginal odor? Our bodies emit scents dependent on what we eat, what we wear, our health, medication, bacterial activity on the skin, and gland secretions. Understanding the difference between normal and abnormal odors is a crucial health aspect for women to be aware of. If you’re curious about what a vagina should smell like, Illume has compiled a wealth of material for you.
What Causes Vaginal Odor?
Even shortly after showering, it’s natural to smell “down there.” Your vagina is a warm, dark area packed with lymph nodes and glands. It has its own finely balanced ecosystem, along with its own distinct bacterial flora that produces odor.
You may not even notice your vaginal odor, and even if you do, it might be due to your period, sexual intercourse, or a variety of other common odor-producing factors.
However, if you notice a strong, out-of-the-ordinary odor, especially if it is accompanied by itching or burning, it might be an indication of something more severe.
Normal, Healthy Vaginal Odors
Here are some absolutely normal odors you may encounter:
Tangy, fermented, or sour odor: These are completely healthy terms for describing the odor produced by your natural bacterial flora in the vagina. Good bacteria maintain your vagina healthy by generating lactic acid, hydrogen peroxide, and other compounds that inhibit the growth of dangerous bacteria. They help regulate your vaginal pH by keeping it acidic – between 3.8 and 4.5 for non-menopausal women and 4.5 and 6 for menopausal women – to prevent yeast and other hazardous germs from growing.
Metallic odor, like a jar of pennies: A metallic vaginal odor could be caused by menstrual blood or minor bleeding after intercourse passing through your vaginal canal. Iron is present in blood, which explains the metallic odor. It could also be due to interaction with sperm, which can alter the pH balance of your vagina.
Bittersweet or molasses-like odor: If your vaginal odor smells like sour gingerbread, your normal bacteria may be in flux, changing your pH balance and, thus, your scent.
Abnormal, Unhealthy Vaginal Odors
If you experience any of these vaginal odors, you should consult with your gynecologist.
Fishy: If your vaginal odor smells like dead fish, it could be an indication of a more serious condition:
- Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) can be one of the causes. BV is a bacterial infection that develops when your natural lactobacilli become out of balance and overgrow. Symptoms include thin vaginal discharge with a strong fishy odor and little irritation or burning when urinating. Antibiotics are used to treat BV.
- Trichomoniasis, a sexually transmitted infection, is another possibility for a strong fishy odor in the vaginal area. Trichomoniasis can cause genital itching, burning, redness, or soreness, as well as urinary discomfort and a clear, white, yellowish, or greenish vaginal discharge in women. Trichomoniasis is treatable with antibiotics.
Rotten, like bad meat: A forgotten tampon could be the source of a foul vaginal odor. (It happens more commonly than you think.) In addition to a very bad-smelling vaginal discharge that’s yellow, green, pink, gray, or brown, you may experience additional symptoms. Fever, vaginal itching, urinating soreness, pain around your pelvis or abdomen, redness around the genital area, and vaginal swelling are some of the symptoms. Call your doctor if you are unable to easily remove the tampon and are having these symptoms.
When Should You Consult Your Gynecologist About Vaginal Odor?
It’s the particularly smelly vaginal odors that you must pay attention to and bring to the notice of your doctor, especially if they’re accompanied by:
- Vaginal discharge with an unusual color or consistency
- Bleeding that is not related to your menstruation
- Vaginal swelling
- Rashes or redness in the genitalia
If you experience any of the symptoms listed above, together with an abnormal vaginal odor, you should call your doctor and make an appointment.
Best Practices in Feminine Hygiene
The first thing to remember is that many vaginal odors are normal and healthy. However, if you want to reduce the odors, here are a few suggestions:
- Unless otherwise directed by your doctor, do not use douches. Douches and other products, such as feminine deodorants and sprays, can change the pH levels of a healthy vagina, resulting in an increase of undesirable bacteria and infection.
- Wash your vaginal area with warm water and a tiny bit of unscented soap.
- When engaging in sexual activity, wear a condom to prevent contact between sperm and vaginal secretions; use only unscented and non-flavored lubricants.
- Consider wearing cotton underwear, which holds less moisture and makes it more difficult for odor-producing bacteria to grow.
- Avoid tight-fitting clothing, including thongs, which can collect fecal matter that can reach the vagina and cause infections and odors.
- Consuming probiotics, such as yogurt, can help prevent yeast infections and minimize vaginal odor by maintaining proper pH levels in your vagina.
- Staying hydrated aids in the control of bacterial overgrowth and stress-related perspiration.