In this article:
- The vagina has an inherent scent that is mildly musty, and it can undergo slight changes and become more noticeable at different points during the menstrual cycle.
- The treatment for vaginal odor depends upon the underlying cause. Hence, it is important to seek medical advice rather than self-treating.
- The vagina does not require intensive cleaning. It is equipped with glands whose secretions naturally wash away the bacteria and other impurities from the vaginal walls.
- Proper feminine hygiene primarily entails changing your innerwear daily and keeping your vagina free of excessive sweat or moisture.
- Douching and the use of scented vaginal hygiene products such as deodorants, powders, and gels can irritate or damage the vaginal lining and invite infections.
What Is Vaginal Odor?
Normal vaginal secretions and sweating can make your private parts smell a certain way, which is referred to as vaginal odor. Adult women, in particular, have vaginal secretions that smell slightly musty, which should not raise any cause for concern.
Moreover, the pungency of the odor can increase or decrease at different points during the menstrual cycle.
Sex usually leads to the secretion of strong-smelling vaginal discharge, which makes the odor particularly noticeable.
A vagina that becomes distinctly malodorous in regular everyday life could indicate an underlying infection or problem that needs attention.
The abnormally unpleasant smell is usually accompanied by other signs of vaginal discomfort such as irritation, burning, itching, and discharge.
You may consider using a vaginal douche or deodorant to banish or camouflage the smell, but these personal hygiene products can be extremely harsh for the delicate lining of the vagina when used regularly.
Using these over-the-counter products may subdue the odor temporarily, but they can end up aggravating the irritation and other vaginal symptoms in the process.
Causes of Vaginal Malodor
Vaginal odor can stem from an underlying vaginal infection or a noninfectious cause.
Infectious causes of vaginal odor
Bacterial vaginosis: The vagina is naturally populated with multiple strains of good bacteria that exist in perfect equilibrium to form a healthy vaginal microbiome.
The overgrowth of any of these bacteria can disrupt the natural flora balance in the vagina and thereby pave the way for infections.
Bacterial vaginosis is one such infection that frequently affects women. This infection is caused by a buildup of Gardnerella vaginalis, which is perhaps the most dominant strain of vaginal bacteria.
People with bacterial vaginosis usually experience the following symptoms:
- Strong fishy odor
- Vaginal discharge that has a watery, thin consistency, foamy appearance, and white, dull gray, or greenish color
Trichomoniasis: Trichomoniasis, commonly referred to as “trich,” is a parasitic infection that is transmitted from one person to another through sexual contact. This sexually transmitted infection is caused by a tiny protozoan parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis.
Although fairly prevalent in both men and women, this infection is usually hard to detect as it does not present any typical symptoms. The disease can manifest differently in different people, but the symptoms are usually more pronounced in women.
Some common symptoms associated with trichomoniasis include:
- Abnormally fishy-smelling discharge from the vagina
- Unusually thin or runny vaginal discharge
- Increased volume of vaginal discharge that may be clear, white, yellowish, or greenish
- Itching, burning, redness, or soreness of the genitals
- Discomfort when passing urine
Forgotten foreign bodies: The prolonged presence of a foreign object, such as a tampon, sex toy, shred of condom, and contraceptive device such as a cap or sponge, in the vagina can be a source of genital contamination.
When you insert any object in the vagina, make sure to remove it later and thoroughly wash the genital region to get rid of any remnants.
Sometimes, you may not even realize that something is stuck in the vagina, such as a split condom, which is why it is recommended that you sanitize it properly.
If an object is left in the vaginal cavity for too long, it can become a breeding ground for germs, which can lead to an infection.
Leaving a foreign body in the genital area for too long can give rise to the following symptoms:
- Unusually strong foul smell from the vagina
- Yellow, green, pink, grey, or brown discharge from the vagina
- Vaginal itching
- Pain or discomfort when urinating
Rectovaginal fistula: A rectovaginal fistula refers to a structural malformation that typically affects the female population. It is an abnormal tunnel-like passage or tract that forms between the rectum and the vagina, usually as a result of complications during childbirth.
The fistula allows fecal content, gas, and other materials from the rectum to trickle into the vagina while being excreted out of the body. This introduces infection-causing bacteria and other germs into the vaginal area and eventually gives rise to a foul vaginal odor.
Women with a rectovaginal fistula usually experience the following symptoms:
- Discolored rotten-smelling discharge from the vagina
- Recurrent vaginal infections
- Pain during intercourse
Noninfectious causes of vaginal malodor
Excessive vaginal sweating: The accumulation of sweat in the genital area can make your vagina smell especially bad. This problem is particularly common in people who are overweight or obese as well as those who have a natural tendency to perspire profusely.
Poor vaginal hygiene: Women who do not practice basic feminine hygiene regularly are more likely to develop a foul vaginal odor. Changing your underwear daily, washing or wiping the genital area properly, and avoiding the excessive use of chemical-based vaginal perfumes, powders, or deodorants are some bare-minimum steps to keep your vagina free of malodor.
Digestive or urinary problems: People who suffer from chronic constipation, fecal incontinence, or poor bladder control tend to give off an unusually strong and fishy vaginal smell.
Trimethylaminuria: Some people are born with a rare disorder called trimethylaminuria, or ‘‘fish-odor syndrome,’’ which is another cause of abnormally offensive vaginal odor.
This condition is characterized by the deficiency of a certain enzyme that conversely triggers the excessive release of a rancid-smelling compound called trimethylamine in the urine, breath, sweat, and vaginal fluids.
When the vaginal discharge and sweat combine, the unpleasant fishy smell of trimethylamine becomes increasingly pronounced and gives rise to a strong genital malodor.
People with this inherited condition may experience varying degrees of vaginal odor, which usually worsens during the menstrual period. In many cases, the odor may only surface during puberty and resolve on its own thereafter. (2)
Vaginal cancer: Vaginal malodor can also be symptomatic of primary vaginal cancer, especially if it is accompanied by a bloody vaginal discharge that is unrelated to your normal menstruation.
Cervical cancer: Your vagina can also turn unusually smelly in the wake of cervical cancer.
The cervix refers to the lowermost part of the uterus that connects it to the vagina. The growth of a cancerous tumor in this narrow stretch of tissue can cut off the oxygen supply and cause apoptosis or cell death.
As a result, the tumor becomes infected and causes a continuous discharge of discolored, foul-smelling, blood-containing secretions that trickle out through the vagina.
Diagnosis and Medical Treatment of Vaginal Odor
Vaginal malodor can stem from a wide range of causes. Thus, the first step toward treating this problem is to determine its underlying factors.
The doctor will collect a sample of your vaginal discharge and examine it under a microscope to pin the culprit. He/she may also run a few additional tests to reach a more conclusive diagnosis.
The doctor will then recommend the appropriate treatment strategy to address the root cause of the vaginal odor.
How to Prevent Vaginal Odor with Self-Care
Follow these tips to maintain feminine freshness at all times and prevent bad vaginal smells from occurring:
- Proper genital hygiene demands that you use a minuscule amount of mild fragrance-free soap and copious amounts of water to wash your vagina clean during every bath or even otherwise.
The vaginal skin is extremely sensitive and can react negatively to chemical-laden feminine hygiene products. The use of perfumed soaps, powders, and deodorants to get rid of vaginal smell can actually unbalance the vaginal flora and pH.
- As vaginal smell tends to be particularly intense after sexual intercourse, make a habit of washing the genital area with mild soap and water once you are done.
- Try to keep your genital area free of excessive moisture or sweat at all times to prevent yeast growth. To that end, it is important to wipe your genitals after a bowel release or urination.
If you experience increased vaginal perspiration, simply wash and wipe the nether regions from time to time. Even after taking a bath, you must allow the genital area to air dry before you put on your underwear.
- If you wish to keep yourself safe from sexually transmitted diseases that lead to vaginal malodor and other serious health concerns, it is necessary that you use proper protection such as female condoms during sex.
Another important precautionary measure that can minimize the risk of sexually transmitted infections in sexually active individuals is limiting the number of sexual partners. It is always better to be familiar with your partner’s sexual history.
- Always wipe from front to back when cleaning the genital area to push the fecal matter and other germs away from the vagina rather than toward it.
- Wear a fresh pair of underwear every day and change out of wet, damp, or dirty underwear as soon as possible to preserve your vaginal health and hygiene.
When buying underwear, make sure that it is made of a breathable fabric. Underpants that are 100% cotton are the ideal choice as they allow proper air circulation within the genital area, which helps to keep the vulva sweat-free and moisture-free.
- When you are having your period, make sure to change your pads or tampons frequently.
- Do not wear the same panty liner for too long.
- Minimize your intake of refined carbohydrates, caffeine, and sugary drinks, all of which can stimulate yeast production.
- Include yogurt and other probiotic sources in your daily diet to restore the healthy balance of bacteria in the body.
- Maintain proper fluid intake throughout the day to flush out toxins and harmful bacteria from the body and, thereby, minimize the risk of odor-causing infections.
Some General Queries
Does douching help in getting rid of vaginal odor?
Douching is another name for vaginal irrigation, which involves flushing the inside of the vagina with a jet of water or other mixtures of fluids. There is a wide variety of vaginal douches available commercially that come in the form of prepackaged liquids.
This intravaginal cleansing method has become quite popular across all ages of women, from teenagers to older females. According to the US Department of Health & Human Services, one in every five women that figure in the age bracket of 15 to 44 years practices douching in the United States alone. (1)
However, an overwhelming majority of doctors advise against this seemingly harmless cleaning method.
Douching has been associated with several deleterious side effects, and its benefits remain unsubstantiated by research.
Washing the vaginal area with a high-pressure stream of antiseptic fluids can irritate its delicate lining, cause pelvic inflammation, and introduce germs and infections.
By compromising the integrity of the vagina, long-term douching can make one vulnerable to the following risks:
- Vaginal infections such as bacterial vaginosis and candidiasis
- Sexually transmitted diseases
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
- Vaginal swelling or irritation
- Difficulty conceiving
- Unbalanced vaginal flora (2)
Given that your vagina is essentially self-cleaning, there is no need for you to resort to such controversial techniques.
However, one 2011 randomized controlled trial suggested that short-term douching with tap water may help reduce vaginal malodor that occurs without any discernible cause.
The study was conducted on 140 women with perceived vaginal odor. This makes it clear that the positive effect of douching only applies to its short-term use. (5)
Are home remedies safe and effective in getting rid of vaginal odor?
To successfully treat vaginal odor, you must first understand what is causing it and then adopt a treatment approach that specifically targets the underlying cause.
Thus, self-treating foul vaginal smell with various home remedies and other nonprescription methods without addressing the root cause will only provide temporary relief at best.
You must first consult a doctor for a proper diagnosis and then proceed with the recommended treatment, which includes both medicinal interventions and self-care measures to banish the problem for good.
Certain home remedies can even end up exacerbating your condition. So, it is best to err at the side of caution and consult a doctor before trying out a new remedy.
In one study, 35 women with different sexual preferences and a history of recurrent bacterial vaginosis tried various home remedies and self-help therapies.
The interventions included douching, taking salt or vinegar baths, and the topical and oral administration of yogurt and garlic to relieve their symptoms and eliminate the vaginal malodor that is characteristic of bacterial vaginosis. However, most of them failed to register any significantly positive outcomes. (3)
Is vaginal odor during pregnancy common?
Pregnancy can alter the vaginal pH and, thereby, induce changes in the genital odor. The odor changes are usually too subtle to be detected by the affected woman.
Unusual vaginal odor is therefore a normal occurrence during pregnancy and does not require medical attention, unless it is accompanied by a burning or itching sensation in the genitals.
Can having multiple sexual partners cause vaginal odor?
Having multiple sexual partners inadvertently puts you at an increased risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections and diseases, many of which can give rise to a foul vaginal odor.
Two of the most common ailments that are spread through sexual contact are trichomoniasis and bacterial vaginosis. Both of these conditions are associated with an offensive vaginal odor.
Can menopause cause vaginal odor?
Menopause is followed by a natural decline in the production of female hormones including estrogen.
Thus, it is common for postmenopausal women to develop an estrogen deficiency, which eventually paves the way for the progressive deterioration of the vaginal and urinary tract muscles, also known as urogenital atrophy.
The thinning of the vaginal walls, in particular, can lead to a series of distressing symptoms. These include increased dryness, soreness, and irritation in the vagina and vulva, pain and burning during urination (dysuria), excessive vaginal discharge, and vaginal odor. (4)
Do yeast infections cause vaginal odor?
Unlike most vaginal infections that are typically associated with a strong fishy smell, a yeast infection generally triggers vaginal discharge that is mostly odorless.
In some cases, the overgrowth of candida fungus in the vaginal area can produce a mild yeasty smell that is barely noticeable.
Thus, a yeast infection can make your vagina smell slightly different than usual, but it does not result in the characteristic fishy odor that is defined as vaginal malodor.
Is it normal for the vagina to smell during a period?
The intensity of vaginal odor can vary during the course of the menstrual cycle. The changes in vaginal odor are largely due to the periodic fluctuations in the vaginal microflora and acidity levels.
The vagina gives off a faint musty smell at all times, but the odor tends to be most pungent before the onset of a period, especially on days when you are ovulating.
Once the period begins, the menstrual blood and the inner lining of the womb combine with the vaginal bacteria to produce a distinct smell.
Increased sweating often makes the problem worse, especially in women who are on the heavier side.
It is normal to have a slight fishy vaginal smell even after the period ends, provided it is not coming from a used tampon that you forgot to remove.
When to See the Doctor
It is completely normal to have a slight musty smell coming from the vagina, but consult a doctor if:
- It becomes unusually strong, offensive, or noticeable.
- It is accompanied by other alarming symptoms, such as vaginal itching, pain, soreness, bleeding, and increased vaginal discharge.
What you may ask your doctor:
- How long does it take for the vaginal odor to go away after treatment?
- Is it normal to have a persistent vaginal odor?
- What treatment options do I have?
- Is my vaginal odor a sign of something serious?
- Will it reoccur even after the treatment?
What your doctor may ask you:
- How long has it been since you first noticed the vaginal odor?
- Are you currently suffering from any infections?
- Have you had vaginal infections in the past?
- Do you practice safe sex?
- Have you taken any medication and treatments yet?
- Do you maintain proper hygiene?
Vaginal malodor can reflect poorly on your personal hygiene and can be a source of embarrassment. A healthy vagina is naturally equipped to clean itself with the help of secretions that wash away the excess bacteria and other impurities.
This vaginal discharge may carry a mild smell, which is perfectly normal, unless it becomes unusually pungent or is accompanied by vaginal discomfort and other adverse symptoms affecting the urogenital area.
In such a case, one should immediately seek medical care as the vaginal odor can be symptomatic of a serious problem.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Dr. Christian Pope, DO, FACOG
Yes. A few STDs may cause vaginal odor. Examples are bacterial vaginosis, which is the most common cause of the vaginal odor, and trichomonas. Sometimes chlamydia and gonorrhea may cause an odor if the infection gets advanced, but not usually.
It is not okay to have a foul vaginal odor. It may lead to irritation, an unpleasant body odor, and embarrassment.
A normal vaginal odor is typically none to a very slight acidic smell.
Yes, baking soda soaks are oftentimes helpful. I typically advise patients to place 1 cup of baking soda in a bathtub and soak for 15 minutes.
A diet higher in sugars and simple carbohydrates may lead to more vaginal infections. Oftentimes, women who experience recurrent infections are advised to limit their sugars and carbohydrates, and this has shown promise in reducing the frequency of such infections dramatically.
Periods may lead to odor, many times due to the clotting and drying of blood, not necessarily an infection. May women do experience frequent infections that occur right after their periods.
Estrogen status plays an important role in determining the healthy and normal state of the vagina. During the reproductive years, the presence of estrogen increases the glycogen content in the vaginal epithelial cells. This encourages colonization of the vagina by lactobacilli, which are normal bacteria in this body part.
The increased level of colonization leads to lactic acid production and consequently a decrease in the vaginal pH to less than 4.5. This is normal. This acidic environment protects against the growth of pathogenic organisms and is key to maintaining a balanced vaginal bacterial environment.
The normal vaginal flora remains mixed and consists of Gardnerella vaginalis, Escherichia coli, group B Streptococcus, genital Mycoplasma species, and Candida albicans. In prepubertal girls and postmenopausal women, the lack of estrogen inhibits the normal growth of vaginal bacteria.
Therefore, there is a paucity of background bacteria, the vaginal epithelium is thin, and the vaginal pH is elevated (higher than 4.5) because lactic acid-producing lactobacilli are fewer.
The growth of bacteria associated with bacterial vaginosis is far less common in an estrogen-deficient vaginal environment. Therefore, prepubertal girls and postmenopausal women (not using estrogen) uncommonly have bacterial vaginosis.
About Dr. Christian Pope, MD: Dr. Pope is board certified in obstetrics and gynecology. He received his obstetrics and gynecology training at the Tufts University School of Medicine, Baystate Medical Center.
Dr. Pope is a fellow of the American Academy of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, with a practice drawing widely from Southeastern Massachusetts and Eastern Rhode Island regions.
He is a long-standing medical staff member and past chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology of St. Luke’s Hospital of Southcoast Hospitals in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He is in private group practice at Hawthorn Medical Associates, Inc.