10 vaginal odours you should definitely know about

woman hangs underwear with flowers on clothes line
We need to talk vaginal odours real quickGeorgii Boronin - Getty Images

Let's get this out of the way from the start: You don't need to be concerned about what your vagina smells like normally. That is, unless something smells... super off. You know, you get a whiff of funkiness and suddenly you're reading Google results for "why does my vagina smell?" until 3 a.m. You're not wrong to be concerned about a potential infection or something else going on. Hey, it happens to the best of us.

But if you're worrying about your vag's scent on the daily, you can relax — chances are it's all around fine. "There's a wide range of normal [when it comes to vaginal odours]," explains Mary Jane Minkin, MD, clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at the Yale University School of Medicine. Most of the time when people come into her office self-conscious about an odour, Dr. Minkin can't smell anything, she says. So keep that in mind.

That said, there are certain vaginal odours that you might want to get checked out. If it's smelling rotten, fishy, or bread-like down there, you should call your GP or make an appointment at your local sexual health centre. The same goes for if you're noticing discharge that's different from what you're used to on top of a strong odour. These are signs you could be dealing with something more serious than just a weird smell that'll go away in a day or two.

So let's recap. Most of the time, your vag's odour is no biggie. Unless you're experiencing an out of the norm scent that doesn't go away, or could be described as rotten, fishy, or bread-like—then it's likely time to see a doctor.

Simple enough, right? Now let's get into some common vaginal odours, what they could mean, along with all the signs and symptoms, and how to get rid of unusual stenches (spoiler: It's not douching! Don't be douching, y'all!!).

What are the signs and symptoms of vaginal odour?

Well, the first thing to notice is that it'll feel out of the ordinary from your regular scent (which you're probably used to at this point). "Vaginal odour that is abnormal may have a strong amine odour, from amines [a type of organic compound] which can cause it to have a slightly fishy odour," says Jessica Shepherd, MD, an ob-gyn and women's health expert based in Dallas, Texas. Any change in discharge color, consistency, or burning when you pee could be potential red flags of certain types of infections (more on that below).

There's also a chance that the scent can be from the oxidized blood (aka just blood that comes in contact with air) towards the end of your period, which is completely normal, too, and will go away as soon as your cycle wraps, adds Dr. Shepherd. Your vag's scent will naturally fluctuate with your menstrual cycle, and any other hormonal changes, like pregnancy, because different levels of hormones could change your pH, discharge, or vaginal odour. If you're experiencing a rare vaginal odour outside of those instances though, keep reading, because it might be something to run by your gyno, Dr. Shepherd says.

What types of vaginal odours should I be on the lookout for?

1. Rotten

A super-strong smell that resembles rotting food is probably thanks to a tampon that's been left in for a few days, says Alyssa Dweck, MD, an ob-gyn in Westchester County, New York. A combination of old blood, bacteria, and vaginal secretions stuck in the tampon create the unmistakable odour, she explains.

How to handle it

If this sounds like what you've got going on, don't be embarrassed. Both Dr. Minkin and Dr. Dweck say that it happens all. the. time. If you're not able to remove the tampon yourself—it might be too far up to reach—make an appointment with your healthcare provider. Once they help you get it out, the odour should improve right away, says Dr. Dweck.

2. Fishy

If you notice a strong, fishy odour coming from your vag, you could have bacterial vaginosis, aka BV, says Dr. Minkin. BV is an infection caused by an imbalance of the good and bad bacteria in the vagina. You might also experience a white or grey discharge, according to the NHS.

On the other hand, if you have a fishy smell and green or yellowish discharge, vaginal itching and burning, and pain when you pee or have sex, you could have trichomoniasis, a common STI.

How to handle it

Either way, don't stress. Just see your GP so they can check it out and prescribe antibiotics if needed. And whatever you do, please don't try to solve the problem by douching, says Dr. Dweck. It'll only further upset your vagina's pH (the acidity level that keeps the good bacteria up in there happy), and the practice is linked to hormonal disruptions, chronic disease, and reproductive and developmental problems as well as heightened risk of ovarian cancer.

3. Bread-like

Smell yeast-y, like you're baking a loaf of sourdough down there? Then you probably have a yeast infection. Other telltale signs include cottage cheese-like discharge, and intense itchiness of the vagina and vulva, says Dr. Minkin.

Yeast infections usually occur when lubrications, spermicides, antibiotic use, or even pregnancy allow the normal amount of yeast in the area to overgrow, according to ACOG. Since warm and wet environments are a good place for yeast to grow, you can also get 'em from working out and sitting in your sweaty underwear (we've all been there) or wearing a wet bathing suit, adds Dr. Minkin.

How to get rid of it

The good news? Yeast infections are no biggie. Just check in with your doc to confirm your diagnosis. Most yeast infections can be cured with OTC anti-fungal medications.

4. Foul

An odour that can only be described as really, really bad accompanied by a fever of 38°C or higher, pain in the lower abdomen, or painful sex, means you could have pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. PID is usually caused when the bad bacteria from STIs like gonorrhoea and chlamydia move from the vagina or cervix into the uterus and other reproductive organs.

How to get rid of it

If you suspect you might have PID, call your doctor ASAP so they can prescribe you an antibiotic. If left untreated, it can cause infertility and chronic pelvic pain.

5. Bleachy

FYI: 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, says Jennifer Wider, MD, a nationally renowned women's health expert.

How to get rid of it

Try an unscented lube or a different brand of condoms if it the smell really bothers you.

6. Tinny

If your vagina's scent du jour is vaguely metallic during your period, you're all good. When the blood (aka your uterine lining) exits your body, it can give off this smell, but it's not unhealthy, says Dr. Wider.

How to get rid of it

Not feelin' it? You can try to get rid of the scent by using a pH balancing gel says Dr. Minkin. They're designed to make the vagina more acidic and assure that odour-causing bacteria doesn't grow.

7. Musky

A healthy vag's scent can vary based on how much you sweat. So after an intense spin class, don't be alarmed if your lady bits smell a 'lil muskier than usual. Just like your pits, your vulva has sweat glands that create moisture, which can lead to a stronger odour says Dr. Wider.

How to get rid of it

FWIW, this one is nothing to worry about either. But if you want to feel a little fresher, try using a pH balancing gel or taking a shower to wash away the excess sweat, suggests Dr. Minkin.

8. Sweet

Though there's no science to prove this, anecdotally it's been suggested that citrus fruits like oranges, pineapple, and grapefruit can sweeten the smell and taste of vaginal fluids, confirms Dr. Wider. But let's not stress about smells before getting some action. Your girl is perfect just the way she is.

9. Pungent

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, says Dr. Dweck. 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 pee could contribute to vaginal odour, explains Dr. Minkin.

Again, don't let this keep you from eating all the garlic bread. The smell of your vulva is NOTHING to be ashamed of.

10. Cheese-like

Alright, so this one is less common, but some people do complain of a cheese-like odour coming from their crotch. This scent isn't caused by one particular thing, says Jackie Walters, MD, an Atlanta-based ob-gyn and author of The Queen V: Everything You Need to Know About Sex, Intimacy, and Down There Health Care. It could be an infection, or a combination of factors like a yeast infection coming into contact with a lubricant, or trichomoniasis coming into contact with a condom, she explains.

How to get rid of it

Go see your GP to get to the bottom of it.

This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

You Might Also Like