What is abnormal vaginal odor?
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.
What causes vaginal odor?
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.
Normal vaginal odors
Many vaginal odors signal short-term shifts in your pH level and aren’t cause for concern. For example:
- A vaginal odor that smells slightly sour or tangy may be a sign that the pH level in your vaginal flora is slightly more acidic than is typical. This smell is associated with the good bacteria in your vagina, lactobacilli. Some people describe the odor as yeasty, similar to sourdough bread.
- A slightly sweet or bittersweet smell, like molasses or gingerbread, may also be a sign that your pH levels have changed.
- Your vaginal discharge may smell slightly metallic — like copper pennies — when you’re menstruating. This is because period blood contains iron.
- A vagina that smells like ammonia may be a sign that there’s urine residue on your genitals (vulva) or that you’re dehydrated.
- A skunk-like scent or a smell similar to body odor may be a sign that you’re stressed and your sweat glands are working overtime.
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.
Abnormal vaginal odors
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:
- Bacterial vaginosis (BV): An infection that’s caused by an imbalance in your vagina’s flora. BV is responsible for the fishy smell most commonly associated with unpleasant vaginal odors. The fishy smell may be especially strong after sex. Another common symptom to look out for with BV is a gray or grayish-white discharge.
- Trichomoniasis: A sexually transmitted infection caused by a parasite. Trich doesn’t always cause symptoms. When it does, it can cause a fishy odor, similar to BV, or a musty smell. Another common symptom of Trich is a greenish-yellow discharge.
Rarely, vaginal odor is a symptom of:
- Rectovaginal fistula: A rare condition where the opening between your rectum and vagina allows feces to leak into your vagina. The leakage causes a foul-smelling discharge.
- Vaginal cancer: Symptoms include heavy vaginal discharge with a strong odor.
- Cervical cancer: Symptoms can include a strong, bad-smelling discharge.
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.
What causes vaginal odor during pregnancy?
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.
Care and Treatment
How is abnormal vaginal odor diagnosed?
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 vaginalis bacteria, which cause the fishy smell associated with BV. As part of the diagnosis, your provider may also:
- Take a medical history and ask about your symptoms.
- Perform a vaginal exam.
- Check your vaginal pH.
How is vaginal odor treated?
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:
- Clindamycin (Cleocin®).
- Metronidazole (Flagyl®).
- Tinidazole (Tindamax®).
How can vaginal odor be prevented?
You can put healthy habits in place to keep your vulva clean and protect your vagina from infection.
- Practice good hygiene. Shower regularly and only use mild, unscented soap and warm water to clean your vulva. Bathe and put on a clean outfit shortly after exercising so that you’re not sitting for too long in hot, sweaty clothes or a damp swimsuit. Warm and wet environments are ideal places for harmful bacteria growth.
- Don’t douche. Douching can upset the pH levels in your vagina and make you vulnerable to infection. If you already have a vaginal infection, douching can force the bacteria deeper inside your body and cause a more severe infection, like pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID is a severe infection that can cause infertility.
- Wear light, breathable clothing. Avoid wearing clothes that are too tight on your vulva, like thongs. Instead, wear cotton underwear that won’t hold in heat and moisture.
- Drink plenty of water. Your vagina may have a strong ammonia smell if you’re dehydrated. Without enough water, the waste material in your urine can become especially concentrated and foul-smelling. Water can help with hydration and eliminate the smell.
- Protect your vagina (and vaginal flora) during sex. Wear condoms to reduce your risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and other infections, like BV, that can disrupt your vagina’s pH levels. If you’re using a lubricant, choose only unscented and unflavored ones to prevent vaginal irritation.
When to Call the Doctor
When should I seek treatment for abnormal vaginal odor?
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I stop smelling down there?
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.
Why do I have a strong odor down there?
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.
What does BV smell like?
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.
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