All vaginas — including healthy ones — have a mild odor. Your vaginal scent can change in response to sex, menstruation, pregnancy, etc. However, a strong, unpleasant vaginal odor with a discharge may be a sign of a health problem like vaginitis. A course of antibiotics is often all that’s needed to treat the condition and get rid of the smell.
All vaginas naturally produce scents. The smells that your vagina emits communicate information about your lifestyle, activities and overall health. For instance, vaginal odor often varies throughout your menstrual cycle. Vaginal discharge often smells most pronounced midcycle. Your vagina may give off a stronger odor after intercourse or a workout. Everyone’s vagina has a unique scent, and that’s completely normal.
A strong unfamiliar and unpleasant odor — especially one that continues for several days and smells fishy – isn’t normal. A smelly vaginal odor may be a symptom of a health problem, especially when it accompanies other symptoms like a grayish-white vaginal discharge, burning and itching.
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Your vaginal odor often depends on your pH level, or how acidic your vagina is. Various types of bacteria live in your vagina. They make up what’s called your vaginal flora. These bacteria exist in a delicate balance to keep your vagina at the right acidity (pH) level. Having a healthy pH prevents infections that cause a foul vaginal odor. On the other hand, imbalance in your vaginal flora may cause your vagina to smell fishy, musty or generally unpleasant.
Many vaginal odors signal short-term shifts in your pH level and aren’t cause for concern. For example:
Temporary vaginal odor is common and often resolves on its own. Odors may be related to hormonal changes or even diet. For example, foods with a strong odor, like garlic or fish, can cause odor changes in your vagina.
However, an unpleasant odor that doesn’t go away may be a sign of an underlying condition that requires medical attention.
An imbalance in your vaginal bacterial levels can lead to infection and inflammation, a condition called vaginitis. The most common types of vaginitis that cause unpleasant vaginal odors produce other symptoms, too, like an abnormal vaginal discharge.
The most common causes of unpleasant vaginal odor are:
Rarely, vaginal odor is a symptom of:
If you forget to remove a tampon, you may eventually notice an odor like rotten meat. The smell goes away once you or a healthcare provider removes the tampon.
Vaginitis is a common cause of unpleasant vaginal smells during pregnancy. Still, other factors may also make you notice new smells down there. Many people report a heightened sense of smell during pregnancy. In addition, cravings may cause you to eat different foods, affecting your vagina’s scent. Increased blood flow to your vagina and changing levels of pregnancy hormones, like estrogen, progesterone and prolactin can affect your pH level and cause new smells.
Postpartum vaginal odor is common. As your uterus returns to its pre-pregnancy state, it releases blood, mucus and other debris related to pregnancy called lochia. Lochia has a stale, metallic musty odor similar to period blood.
To determine what’s causing your vaginitis, a healthcare provider will take a sample of your discharge. The most common cause of abnormal vaginal odor is high levels of Gardnerella vaginalisbacteria, which cause the fishy smell associated with BV. As part of the diagnosis, your provider may also:
Abnormal vaginal odor goes away without treatment at least a third of the time. If the smell doesn’t improve on its own, your healthcare provider will prescribe antibiotics to treat the underlying condition and get rid of the vaginal odor. These can be taken in pill or cream form.
Antibiotics commonly prescribed for clearing up infections that cause unpleasant vaginal odors include:
You can put healthy habits in place to keep your vulva clean and protect your vagina from infection.
If you’re experiencing prolonged abnormal vaginal odor or odor accompanied by discharge, burning and itching, you should see a healthcare provider. Untreated vaginitis can lead to vaginal infections that can spread to your uterus or fallopian tubes. Vaginitis can also increase your risk of contracting STIs.
You should especially seek medical care if you’re pregnant. Pregnant people with vaginitis or vaginal odor are at higher risk of preterm birth, low birth weight, amniotic fluid infection and other complications.
Eliminating the smell begins with figuring out what’s causing the odor. The odor may be fleeting, a change in smell related to your stress levels, menstrual cycle, etc. In that case, you won’t need treatment. Simple lifestyle changes related to maintaining your vagina’s natural pH may do the trick if the problem is hygiene-related. A healthcare provider can prescribe medications to clear up an infection if vaginitis is the culprit.
A strong vaginal odor may be a sign of vaginitis, or it may be a temporary smell related to your hygiene, lifestyle or other changes. Take note of whether you have other symptoms. If the odor is related to an infection, you’ll usually notice other changes, like vaginal itching, burning and discharge.
BV smells like stinky fish. It’s the smell most people associate with an unpleasant vaginal odor.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Many people are self-conscious that their vagina smells bad — or worry if it has a scent at all. But healthy vaginas are supposed to have a slight odor. Think of your vaginal scent as a sign that your vaginal flora is functioning as it should by keeping your vagina infection-free. But if you’re experiencing an unpleasant vaginal odor alongside other symptoms, it may be time to see your provider. A course of antibiotics is usually all it takes to get rid of the odor and return your vagina to its natural scent.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/25/2022.
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