Health & Wellness -

Asking For A Friend: What Vaginal Odor

Making sense of your bacterial flora and what it says about your health

By Julia Walker, RN, BSN 

Julia Walker RN, BSN, is a women’s health nurse, writer, and member of the perry team. Perry connects and supports perimenopause warriors in a safe space. To build friendships, learn, and laugh. The moment you think 'WTF, could this be menopause?' —Join our sisterhood!

Let’s cut to the chase: Having a scent is normal, and we all have one. 

There certainly is stigma around vaginal odor that makes it seem like it’s gross and unhealthy. But, contrary to what many “feminine hygiene” brands would say, using products to get rid of your scent can actually make your vagina unhealthy. 

Furthermore, your scent is the perfect tool for helping you check in with your vaginal health. So, instead of masking your scent, learn what is normal for you so that you know when something is not normal. Here are the different scents you may encounter and what they might mean for your vagina.


Where causes odor in the first place?

The vagina is home to a diverse number of bacterial species. Each woman has her own bacterial flora that can change based on her diet, health status, hormones, etc. However, vaginal bacteria are usually kept in check by sticking within the natural pH range of 3.8-4.5

The type and amount of bacteria living in your vagina are some of the biggest determinants of your scent. However, sweat glands and pheromones can also influence your scent, as can other factors like:

  • Where you are at in your menstrual cycle

  • Hygiene habits

  • Diet

  • Underwear style and fabric

  • Stress

  • Penetrative sex (the pH of semen has a more basic pH than the vagina, so it can change the way you smell in the hours and days after intercourse.)


The Different Types of Vaginal Odors

Fermented: Many women find their vagina smells fermented. The cause of this odor is from a very beneficial bacteria called lactobacilli. This type of bacteria helps to keep your pH in check and keeps harmful bacteria out. If you have a smell that mimics the scent of fermented dairy products or beer, it likely means that you have a high presence of this bacterial species. 

Sweet: Also a common scent, a sweet odor also indicates a high presence of healthy bacteria and is generally no cause for concern unless it seems alarmingly different to you or you have other concerning symptoms like itching or burning.

Metallic: Most of us associate a metallic smell with blood due to the high presence of iron. Thus, if you have a metallic scent, it likely means there is blood somewhere in your vagina or uterus. As we all know, this may be a typical scent during your period and can also occur after sex.

B.O.: Sweat glands surround the vulva (the part that you can actually see). So, if you have a skunky or B.O smell, it is likely that those sweat glands are working a little harder than normal. Exercise, stress, anxiety, and hormones can all influence sweat production in the pelvic region.

Fishy: People often associate a fishy smell with vaginas. Here again, this is usually the result of bacteria. Some women may naturally have a slightly fishy scent that is perfectly normal for them. However, if the odor becomes more pronounced or you have just recently developed a fishy scent, it may be the result of an overgrowth of anaerobic bacteria that cause bacterial vaginosis. It may even be a parasite known as trichomoniasis, which is transmitted sexually. 
When anaerobic bacteria or trich take over, you will likely know it by other alarming symptoms like itching, burning, and discharge. You will need to see your gynecologist for treatment.

Rotten: Having a rotten or pungent smell is not a common scent and usually means that something is inside the vagina. For example, forgotten tampons can cause a rotten smell. Indeed, it can lead to a life-threatening condition called toxic shock syndrome, which requires immediate medical evaluation. 


What To Do If Your Odor Is Abnormal

If you have an abnormal scent, it is essential to consult your doctor as it may indicate that you have an infection. Aside from an odor, you will want to watch for other signs of infection, including:

  • Pain

  • Pain with sex

  • Itching

  • Burning

  • Vaginal bleeding that is unrelated to apparent causes like rough/dry sex or your period

  • Abnormal discharge that may have a cottage-cheese texture or is an unusual color.


      Tips for Keeping Things Healthy Down There

      • Less is often more when it comes to keeping your vaginal tissues healthy. Indeed, the vagina is very good at cleaning itself, so you should avoid practices like douching, using perfumes, or washing with anything but mild soap and water. 

      • Wear breathable underwear made of cotton to keep moisture from accumulating. And, if you want to be an overachiever, avoid wearing panties at night.

      • Change your underwear and clothing after a sweaty workout

      • Watch your sugar intake, as that may encourage yeast overgrowth

      • Change pads, tampons, and other menstrual products regularly

      • Be consistent with your annual check-ups with your health provider


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      Disclaimer
      This article is intended for informational purposes and is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a physician or medical advice. Womaness strives to share the knowledge and advice from our own network of experts and our own research. We encourage you to make healthcare decisions based in partnership with a qualified healthcare professional. 

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