Vaginal Odor: What Is Normal?

a girl in a grassy field smelling a bouquet of wild flowersIt might be an embarrassing question, but we all want to know: why do vaginas smell, and when it comes to vaginal odor, what is normal?

The truth is, our bodies effuse odors based on what we eat, what we wear, the state of our health, medication, bacterial activity on the skin, and gland secretions.

Understanding the types of smells that are normal and those that are concerning are important health considerations women should know. Keep reading to learn more about vaginal odor and the details on what to do if you are concerned. 

Why Do Vaginas Smell?

It’s normal to smell “down there,” even right after bathing. Your vagina resides in a warm, dark place loaded with lymph nodes and glands. It has its own delicately balanced ecosystem, complete with its own unique, odor-producing bacterial flora.

You may not even notice your vaginal odor, and even when you do pick up a scent, it may be because of your period, because you’ve just had sexual intercourse or a host of other normal odor-producing reasons.

But if you notice a strong, not-so-normal odor – especially if it’s accompanied by itching or burning – it may be an indicator of something more serious.

Normal, Healthy Vaginal Odors

Here are some normal, not-to-worry odors you may encounter:

  • Tangy, fermented, or sour. These are perfectly healthy adjectives to describe the vaginal odor created by your normal bacterial flora. Good bacteria help keep your vagina healthy by producing lactic acid, hydrogen peroxide, and other substances to keep harmful bacteria at bay. They help maintain your vaginal pH levels by keeping it on the acidic side – between 3.8 and 4.5 for non-menopausal women and between 4.5 and 6 for those in menopause – to ward off the overgrowth of yeast and other harmful bacteria.
  • Metallic, like a jar of pennies. A metallic vaginal odor could be due to blood from menstruation or light bleeding after sex traveling through your vaginal canal. Blood contains iron, which explains the smell of metal. It could also be from coming in contact with semen, which can affect your vagina’s pH balance.
  • Bittersweet or molasses-y. If your vaginal odor comes off smelling a little like tangy gingerbread, your normal bacteria may be in a bit of flux, affecting your pH balance and, therefore your aroma.
  • Bleachy, like a clean kitchen sink. A chemically vaginal odor could be attributed to a bit of urine in your underwear or around your vulva. But please note, it could also be the sign of a bacterial infection. Read on...

Unhealthy Vaginal Odors

If you notice any of these vaginal odors, you may want to contact your gynecologist.

  • Fishy. If your vaginal odor is running foul, like the smell of dead fish, it may be a sign of a more serious condition:
    • Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) is one possibility. BV is a bacterial infection that occurs when your healthy lactobacilli get out of balance and grow too much. Symptoms include thin vaginal discharge that has a strong fishy smell and a little itching or burning when you urinate. BV is treated with an antibiotic.
    • Trichomoniasis, a sexually transmitted infection, is another possible explanation for a heavy fishy vaginal odor. Women with trichomoniasis may notice genital itching, burning, redness or soreness; urinary discomfort; and a clear, white, yellowish, or greenish vaginal discharge. Trichomoniasis is treatable with antibiotics.
  • Rotten, like bad meat. A forgotten tampon could be the cause of a putrid vaginal odor. (It happens more than you realize.) In addition to a very bad-smelling vaginal discharge that’s yellow, green, pink, gray, or brown, you may experience additional symptoms. These include fever, vaginal itching, pain urinating, pain around your pelvis or abdomen, redness around the genital area, and vaginal swelling. If you’re unable to easily retrieve the tampon and if you are experiencing these symptoms, call your doctor.

When to See Your Gynecologist About Vaginal Odor

It’s the particularly stinky vaginal odors you need to pay attention to and bring to your doctor’s attention, especially when those odors are accompanied by:

  • Fever
  • Vaginal discharge that is an unusual color or consistency
  • Bleeding not associated with your period
  • Itching
  • Burning
  • Vaginal swelling
  • Genital rash or redness

If you notice any of the symptoms above with an abnormal vaginal odor, it’s in your best interest to contact your doctor and schedule an appointment. You might even be able to schedule a virtual care visit with your provider! Click here to learn more.

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Feminine Hygiene Best Practices

The first thing to remember is that many vaginal odors are signs of a healthy vagina. But if you’re looking to minimize those odors, here are a few tips to consider:

  • Do not use douches, unless instructed by your doctor. Douches and other products like feminine deodorants and sprays can alter a healthy vagina’s pH levels, causing an overgrowth of harmful bacteria, leading to infection.
  • Wash your vaginal area with warm water and a small amount of mild unscented soap.
  • Concerning sexual intercourse: use a condom to prevent contact between semen and vaginal fluids; use only unscented and non-flavored lubricants.
  • Consider wearing cotton underwear, which is less likely to hold moisture and makes it more difficult for smell-producing bacteria to build up.
  • Avoid tight-fitting clothing, including thongs, which can collect fecal matter that can reach the vagina and cause infections and odors.
  • Consuming probiotics like yogurt can help prevent yeast infections and reduce vaginal odor by keeping your vagina’s pH levels in order.
  • Staying well-hydrated helps keep bacterial overgrowth and stress-related sweat in check.
  • See your Moreland OB-GYN doctor annually for your wellness visit and in between if you have any concerns.

A healthy ‘you’ starts with understanding the signs and symptoms of concerning feminine issues. If you have any questions about feminine odor or good hygiene practices, contact the team at Moreland OB-GYN today, and we’d be happy to help you.

The providers at Moreland OB-GYN are dedicated to providing women with compassionate OB-GYN care throughout life. This includes complete obstetrical care, gynecology, gynecologic and obstetric surgery, fertility services, preventive health care, and more. Learn more about our services and contact us online to request an appointment.

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