A slight vaginal odor is normal. Vaginal odor often varies throughout a woman’s menstrual cycle. The strongest amount of discharge, which can have an odor, is usually mid-cycle. Vaginal odor may be stronger after intercourse. However, a strong unpleasant odor, especially one that continues for several days and smells fishy, can be a symptom of a health problem.
Abnormal vaginal odor is often accompanied with other symptoms, including grayish-white discharge, burning and itching.
Together, these are often symptoms of a condition called vaginitis.
Any woman can experience abnormal vaginal odor. Women with poor hygiene, women who use douches and pregnant woman are at higher risk for abnormal vaginal odor. Women who have a new sexual partner, or frequently change partners, may also be at higher risk for abnormal vaginal odor.
Abnormal vaginal odor can be caused by infection or inflammation. When the normal vaginal bacteria levels are imbalanced, this can lead to vaginitis.
Specific causes include:
However, temporary vaginal odor is common, and often resolves on its own. This can be due to hormonal changes, or even diet. For example, foods with a strong odor, such as garlic or fish, can cause odor changes in the vagina.
In order to determine which type of bacteria may be causing your vaginitis, your doctor will take a sample of your discharge. The most common cause of abnormal vaginal odor is high levels of Gardnerella bacteria.
Abnormal vaginal odor goes away without treatment at least a third of the time. If it does not resolve on its own, your healthcare provider will prescribe antibiotics. These can be taken in a pill or cream form.
Women can reduce their risk of abnormal vaginal odor by taking precautions. These include:
Vaginal issues are one of the most common reasons women seek medical care. If you are experiencing prolonged abnormal vaginal odor, or odor accompanied by discharge, burning and itching, you should seek medical care. Untreated vaginitis can lead to vaginal infections that can spread to the uterus or fallopian tubes. The risk of contracting STDs is also higher for women with vaginitis.
You should especially seek medical care if you are pregnant. Pregnant women with vaginitis or vaginal odor are at higher risk of preterm birth, low birth weight, infection of amniotic fluid and other risk factors.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/09/2018.