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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, gland secretions, and hormone changes throughout our menstrual cycle.

Understanding the types of vaginal odors and 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 what to do if you are concerned.

Why Do Vaginas Smell?

It’s normal to smell “down there,” even after bathing. Your vagina resides in a warm, dark place loaded with lymph nodes and glands. It has its own delicately balanced ecosystem with 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. There are also a lot of sweat glands in the groin, so what we may think is a vaginal odor may be the normal body odor we experience after exercising or not bathing for a couple of days. 

But if you notice a strong, abnormal vaginal odor – especially if it’s accompanied by itching or burning – it may be an indicator of something more serious, such as a vaginal infection.

Normal, Healthy Vaginal Odors

Here are some typical, not-to-worry vaginal 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. Blood contains iron, which explains the metal smell. 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 vaginal smell.

  • Bleachy, like a clean kitchen sink. A vaginal odor that smells like chemicals could be attributed to a bit of urine in your underwear or around your vulva. But please note that it could also be the sign of a bacterial infection if this odor is accompanied with itching and burning. 

Unhealthy Vaginal Odors

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

  • Fishy. If you’re experiencing a strong vaginal odor that smells like a dead fish, it may be a sign of bacterial vaginosis (BV) or trichomoniasis. 

    • Bacterial vaginosis (BV) occurs when there is an imbalance of the bacteria usually present in the vagina. In other words, the “bad” bacteria (anaerobes) are overpowering the “good” bacteria (lactobacilli). Symptoms of BV include thin vaginal discharge that has a strong fishy odor and slight itching or burning. BV is treated 

    • Trichomoniasis is a sexually transmitted infection and is another possible explanation for a strong 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 symptoms include fever, vaginal itching, pain urinating, pain around your pelvis or abdomen, redness around the genital area, and vaginal swelling. If you cannot retrieve the tampon and are experiencing these symptoms, call your doctor.

When to See Your Gynecologist About Abnormal Vaginal Odor

The best way to know it’s time to schedule a visit with your OBGYN doctor is to get familiar with the types of body odors and vaginal smells that are normal to you. 

Pay attention to how your menstrual cycle or certain foods and drinks alter your vaginal odor. Get to know the types of discharge you experience throughout the month. Paying attention to what’s normal will make it easier to know when something is wrong. 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
  • Vulva pain or discomfort
  • Genital rash or redness
If you notice any of the above symptoms accompanied by an abnormal vaginal odor, it’s in your best interest to contact your doctor and schedule an appointment. 

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Feminine Hygiene Best Practices

The first thing to remember is your vagina is not meant to smell like flowers and many vaginal odors are signs of a healthy vagina. Your vagina is a complex ecosystem that works hard to keep a delicate balance through changes like your period, sex, and ovulation. 

But if you’re looking to minimize those odors and prevent vaginal infections that may lead to abnormal odors and other uncomfortable symptoms, here are a few tips to consider:

  • Do not use douches or other products like feminine deodorants and sprays as they can alter a healthy vagina’s pH levels, causing an overgrowth of harmful bacteria, leading to infection.
  • Wash your vaginal area with lukewarm water or a small amount of mild unscented soap.
  • Use a condom during sexual intercourse to prevent contact between semen and vaginal fluids.
  • Use only unscented and non-flavored lubricants
  • Wear 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. 
  • Consume probiotics like yogurt, which may help prevent yeast infections and reduce vaginal odor by keeping your vagina’s pH levels in order.
  • Drink enough water and stay well-hydrated to help keep bacterial overgrowth and stress-related sweat in check.
  • Avoid any type of scented tampons, pads, and liners.
  • See your Moreland OB-GYN doctor annually for your wellness visit and in between if you have any concerns.

Learn more about vaginal and vulvar problems and best care practices here

A healthy ‘you’ starts with understanding the signs and symptoms that may indicate an issue. If you have any questions about vaginal odor or good vulvar and vaginal hygiene practices, contact the team at Moreland OB-GYN today, and we’d be happy to help you.

Moreland OB-GYN is 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. 

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