Understanding Different Types of Vaginal Odor
It might be an embarrassing question, but we all want to know: why do vaginas smell, and when it comes to vaginal odor, what is normal and what is not normal?
Unusual vaginal odor happens from time to time. Even when you’re taking good care of your body and your vagina, you may experience unfamiliar smells. What’s not normal, however, is persistent or strong odors.
A healthy vagina’s typical scent may best be described as “musky” or “fleshy.” A menstrual cycle might cause a slightly “metallic” scent for a few days. Intercourse may also change the smell temporarily.
Your vagina cleanses itself naturally. If you leave your vagina to its own devices, it can naturally maintain a healthy pH and keep unhealthy bacteria at bay. But if you notice a stark difference in your odor, then you may be experiencing a sign of a potential problem. Strong odors, itching and irritation, and unusual discharge are all signs you may have something other than just unusual vaginal odor.
"Understanding the types of smells that are normal and those that are concerning are important health considerations women should know."
Vaginal Odor: What Is Normal and What is Not?
Normal, Healthy Vaginal Odors
Here are some normal, not-to-worry odors you may encounter:
It’s very common for vaginas to produce a tangy or sour aroma comparable to the smell of fermented foods. These are perfectly healthy adjectives to describe the vaginal odor created by your normal (good) bacterial flora. The presence of these Lactobacilli, which are the same strain of bacteria found in fermented foods like yogurt and sourdough bread, are what make the vagina smell this way. Lactobacilli help keep your vagina healthy by producing lactic acid, hydrogen peroxide, and other substances to keep harmful bacteria at bay. They help maintain your vaginal pH levels by keeping it on the acidic side – between 3.8 and 4.5 for non-menopausal women and between 4.5 and 6 for those in menopause – to ward off the overgrowth of yeast and other harmful bacteria.
If you’re smelling a coppery smell, it could be tied to blood. Blood contains iron, which is responsible for the metallic smell. So, if you’re on your period, that could be the cause of the copper odor. Even if it’s not your period, you could be experiencing light bleeding from sex and that could be the culprit. A copper smell is no cause for alarm, unless you’re also experiencing itching, burning, and/or suspicious discharge. If you notice this smell but you’re not menstruating (or just finished menstruating) or you did not recently have sex, you may want to speak to your gynecologist. It’s not common, but it could indicate abnormal internal vaginal bleeding.
If your vaginal odor comes off smelling a little like tangy gingerbread, your normal bacteria may be in a bit of flux, affecting your pH balance and, therefore your aroma.
Experiencing a chlorine or bleach-like scent after sex is nothing to worry about. It’s most likely due to the particular lubricant or condoms you’re using. Try an unscented lube or a different brand of condoms if it the smell really bothers you. A chemically vaginal odor could be attributed to a bit of urine in your underwear or around your vulva. But please note, it could also be the sign of a bacterial infection. If the smell persists for more than a few days, visit your gynecologist to determine if you have BV.
Strong-smelling, pungent foods like onions and garlic can make your vagina smell like them, too. That’s because the food’s scent gets excreted by sweat glands all over your body, including your vulva, and could also be present in your vaginal fluids. Your pee could also come into play with certain food like asparagus, which is known to give urine a strong smell. Since your urethra is so close to your vagina, the smell of the urine could contribute to vaginal odor.
"Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is the most common cause of vaginitis with approximately 50% of all vaginal infections classified as bacterial vaginosis, while only 25% are classified as yeast infections."
Unhealthy Vaginal Odors
If you notice any of these vaginal odors, you may want to contact your gynecologist.
If your vaginal odor is running foul, like the smell of dead fish, it may be Bacterial Vaginosis. Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) is one possibility. BV is a bacterial infection that occurs when your healthy lactobacilli get out of balance and grow too much. Symptoms include thin vaginal discharge that has a strong fishy smell. You might also experience a white or gray discharge, burning when you urinate, and itching around the outside of the vagina if you have BV. BV is treated with either antibiotics or pH vaginal regulators such as GYNALAC.
Yeast infections are caused when a yeast called candida overgrows and overtakes the normal vaginal flora. Yeast infections usually occur when lubrications, spermicides, antibiotic use, or even pregnancy allow the normal amount of yeast in the area to overgrow. Since warm and wet environments are a good place for yeast to grow, you can also get yeast infections from working out and sitting in your sweaty underwear or wearing a wet bathing suit. The vaginal discharge looks like cottage cheese. It can be so thick that you might notice a thick white coating in and around your vagina. Most yeast infections can be cured with OTC anti-fungal medications. If this smell persists and you have other risk factors associated with diabetes, it is recommended you see your healthcare practitioner.
Trichomoniasis is an infection caused by a protozoan, a microscopic, one-cell animal called a trichomona, which is a sexually transmitted infection that can cause an unpleasantly sour or stale (sometimes fishy) smelly discharge. Women with trichomoniasis may notice genital itching, burning, redness or soreness; urinary discomfort; and a clear, white, yellowish, or greenish vaginal discharge. Trichomoniasis is treatable with antibiotics.
If a tampon has been forgotten for days or even longer, the smell is extremely foul (putrid) and should prompt you to see a healthcare provider to make sure all of the tampon is found and removed, and to determine whether you need further treatment. In addition to a very bad-smelling vaginal discharge that’s yellow, green, pink, gray, or brown, you may experience additional symptoms. These include fever, vaginal itching, pain urinating, pain around your pelvis or abdomen, redness around the genital area, and vaginal swelling.
When to See a Doctor
If you’re worried about an unusual or persistent vaginal odor, or even if you’ve noticed it and it’s not sitting right with you, it’s important to call your doctor, especially when those odors are accompanied by any of the following:
- Vaginal discharge that is an unusual color or consistency
- Bleeding not associated with your period.
- Vaginal swelling
- Genital rash or redness
Having some kind of vaginal odor is normal. However, if is intense and different from your usual scent, it’s time to consult a professional for help.
"Eliminate feminine odor, don't just cover it up!"
“Normal vaginal discharge, is thin, clear, or milky white, and mild smelling. If your discharge turns grey or white accompanied by a strong smell, it may be a sign that you have bacterial vaginosis (BV) and a pH imbalance. The only real solution is to restore and maintain your body’s delicate balance. Sometimes your body can do this on its own, but when it needs a little help, there's GYNALAC.”
A few final words…
The vagina has a unique fragrance. Some females may feel self-conscious about the scent of their vagina, but it is normal for a healthy vagina to have a slight scent. Subtle shifts in your vaginal fragrance are also normal.
Having said this, the way your vagina smells has everything to do with its pH and there are lots of things that can affect your vaginal pH. If you’ve noticed a change in your vaginal odor that is abnormal and doesn’t go away, it’s worth investigating and discussing this with your doctor.
Bacterial Vaginosis: Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) is the most common cause of vaginal infections and results from an imbalance in the natural flora of your vagina and a change in its pH.
Vaginal Discharge: The production of vaginal discharge can change in consistency and appearance depending on many factors. Click for a guide to Vaginal Discharge Colour.
Vaginal Discharge: Click here to learn more about what the color of your vaginal discharge means.
Importance of pH: A healthy vaginal pH is usually between 3.8 and 4.5. Click to learn more about why pH of the vagina is so important.
Vaginal Health: Click to learn more about vaginal health.
Antibiotic Resistance: The growing concern over the risk of antibiotic resistance is the primary reasons most healthcare practitioners are now turning towards non-antibiotic approaches to prevent recurrent infections.
Pregnancy: Bacterial Vaginosis is found in about 25% of pregnant women. Click to learn more about potential risks to your pregnancy.
UTI or Vaginal Infection? If you experience discomfort in your genital area or when you urinate, you may have an infection. Click here to learn more about difference between a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) and Vaginal Infection.
Bacterial Vaginosis or Yeast Infection: Which Is It? Click here to learn how to tell the difference between bacterial vaginosis and a yeast infection.