Your vagina is truly amazing. Its ecosystem works hard to keep a delicate, slightly acidic balance through changes like your period, sex and ovulation. But sometimes vaginas get thrown a little off balance. Do you have smelly vaginal discharge? Does your vagina smell fishy? How do you know if you have abnormal vaginal odour? Here’s how to tell if your vaginal odour is something to worry about, or just part of your natural cycle.
Even though our vaginas are self-cleaning wonders, they’re not designed to smell like a spring meadow or a tropical cocktail – a faint tangy scent or a bit of sweat is totally fine and healthy. A well-balanced vagina will have a pH of 3.8 to 4.5, regulated by tiny bacteria called lactobacilli. Usually, it maintains a balance between vaginal yeast and bacteria, but the exact vaginal smell and pH can vary.
“A lot of things can change the vagina from being acidic to being more alkaline”, says Melisa Holmes, MD, OB-GYN and co-founder of Girlology. Those things include “semen, blood, lubricants and any washes or liquid that you might use on your vaginal area”.
Sometimes vaginal odour can smell like beer or bread, which contain the same helpful bacteria. Your vagina can smell slightly sweet if you’ve just eaten lots of citrus fruits, or slightly bleachy if you’re dehydrated. A vagina can also smell slightly metallic if you’re at the beginning or end of your menstrual cycle. If a strong yeasty or sugary vagina smell is accompanied by itching, burning or white discharge, you may have a yeast infection. Yeast infections can happen to anyone, so no need to panic. Just be aware of the signs and symptoms, and speak to your doctor for a diagnosis and treatment options.
According to Dr Holmes, the groin also contains a lot of sweat glands, so a lot of what we consider worrisome vaginal odours are often just your normal, natural musk – particularly after exercising or a couple of days without a shower. If the smell bothers you, there are easy ways to keep the area clean. Wash the outside of your groin regularly with soap and only rinse the inside of your vulva with warm water, as soap can irritate the area and throw off your vagina’s pH balance. We don’t recommend using a douche inside your vagina – that’s the easiest way to throw off a healthy pH balance!
A tell-tale sign there’s a problem downstairs is that unmistakable fishy vaginal odour. (And not fresh-from-the-market fish either). “Bacterial vaginosis is the primary condition that creates that classic fishy odour”, says Dr Holmes, particularly if it’s accompanied by symptoms like itching, burning or unusual watery discharge. Trichomoniasis, a sexually transmitted infection that has similar symptoms (along with pain when you urinate) could be another culprit for foul vaginal odour. A chemical smell that’s stronger than a faint whiff of bleach might also be a sign of bacterial vaginosis or another vaginal infection.
A good rule to follow is if it makes you scrunch your nose up, or if you can smell it on your fingers beyond a few inches away from your face, you might want to get checked out by a doctor. And if you feel comfortable, you can ask your partner if they’ve noticed a change. “One of the first questions I ask my patients is, ‘has anyone ever said anything to you about it?’” says Dr Holmes. “We can all smell ourselves because we’re so self-conscious, but most people don’t smell other people’s vaginal odours”. If they do, it could be a sign of an infection like bacterial vaginosis.
Some people still feel shame or embarrassment about their period, and how it smells is no exception. But again, regularly cleaning yourself should ease your worry about vaginal odour during your time of the month.
“What most people think of as traditional period odour is actually body odour”, says Dr Holmes. “You’ve got lots of crevices down there. Bacteria loves blood, sweat and hair. So, when blood gets caught in those crevices, it starts to smell”. Dr Holmes says pads are more likely to generate odour than tampons, so if you’re worried about vaginal odour, tampons may be a better choice for you. Change both pads and tampons regularly, and clean your crevices regularly, too. “Blood doesn’t actually have an odour until it hits air”, says Dr Holmes, so if a tampon smells foul or fishy right when it’s removed, you may have bacterial vaginosis or another underlying issue.
And if your vagina smells like rot, or as Dr Holmes puts it, “really strong and horrible like something died”, then that’s almost always a sign of a forgotten tampon in the vagina. If you don’t have any symptoms other than the foul smell, and if you’re not squeamish and are able to reach it, you can try to take it out yourself, but make sure you ask your doctor if you need help (you wouldn’t be the first!). If you start to feel any other symptoms, like itching, burning or fever, it’s definitely time to seek medical attention. And, as a reminder, you should only use a tampon for up to 8 hours.
The best way to know whether your vaginal odour is normal is to get familiar with your own body. What does your vagina smell like? What should it smell like? Get to know the variations of your discharge at different points of the month, and how they smell. You’ll spend a lot less time worrying, and you’ll know right away when something’s not quite right.