Your vagina is truly amazing. Its ecosystem works hard to keep a delicate, slightly acidic balance through changes like your period, sex, and ovulation. But sometimes vaginas get a little off-kilter. Do you have smelly discharge? Does your vagina smell fishy? How do you know if you have abnormal vaginal odor? Here’s how to tell if your vaginal odor is something to worry about, or just part of your natural cycle.
Even though our vaginas are self-cleaning wonders, they’re not designed to smell like a spring meadow or a tropical cocktail - a faint scent of tang or sweat is totally fine and healthy. A well-balanced vagina will have a pH of 3.8 to 4.5., helped along by tiny bacteria called lactobacilli. Usually, it maintains a balance between vaginal yeast and bacteria, but the exact odor and pH can vary.
“A lot of things can change the vagina from being acidic to being more alkaline,” says Melisa Holmes, MD, ob/gyn and cofounder of Girlology. Those things include “semen, blood, lubricants, and any washes or liquid that you might put in your vagina.”
Sometimes vaginal odor can smell like beer or bread, which have that same helpful bacteria. Your vagina can smell slightly sweet if you’ve just eaten lots of citrus fruits, or slightly bleachy if you’re dehydrated. A vagina can smell slightly metallic if you’re at the beginning or end of your menstrual cycle. If a strong yeasty or sugary odor is accompanied by itching, burning, or a white discharge, you might have a yeast infection. Yeast infections can happen to anyone. No biggie! Just know the signs and symptoms, and confirm with your doctor for a diagnosis and treatment options.
There are also a lot of sweat glands in the groin, Dr. Holmes says, so a lot of what we think of as worrisome vaginal odors are often just your normal musk, especially after exercising or a couple of days without a shower. If the funk bothers you, there are easy ways to keep the area clean. Wash the outside of your groin regularly with soap. Rinse the inside of your vulva with just warm water, since soap can irritate and throw off your vagina’s balance. We don’t recommend using a douche inside your vagina - that is the best way to throw off a healthy pH!
A telltale sign of a problem is that unmistakable vaginal odor: Fish. And not just fresh-from-the-market fish, but fish that’s been sitting out for a while. “Bacterial vaginosis is the primary condition that creates that classic fishy odor.” says Dr. Holmes, particularly if it’s accompanied by symptoms like itching, burning, or unusual watery discharge. Trichomoniasis, a sexually transmitted infection that has similar symptoms (along with pain when you pee) could be another culprit for foul vaginal odor. A chemical smell that’s stronger than a faint whiff of bleach might also be a sign of bacterial vaginosis or another vaginal infection.
A good rule to follow: If it makes your nose scrunch up, or if you can smell it on your fingers beyond a few inches away from your face, you might want to get checked out by a doctor. And if you feel comfortable, you can ask your partner if they’ve noticed a change. “One of the first questions I ask my patients is: Has anyone ever said anything to you about it?” Dr. Holmes says. “We can all smell ourselves because we’re so self-conscious, but most people don’t smell other people’s vaginal odors.” If they do, it could be a sign of an infection like bacterial vaginosis.
Some people still feel shame or embarrassment about their periods, and how it smells is no exception. But again, regularly cleaning yourself should ease your worry about vaginal odor during that time of the month.
“What most people think of as traditional period odor is actually body odor,” says Dr. Holmes. “You’ve got lots of crevices down there. Bacteria loves blood, sweat, and hair. So when blood gets caught in those crevices, it will start to smell.” Dr. Holmes says pads are more likely to collect odor than tampons, so if you’re worried about vaginal odor, use the latter. Change both pads and tampons regularly, and clean your crevices regularly, too. “Blood doesn’t even have an odor until it hits air,” Dr. Holmes says, so if a tampon smells foul or fishy right when it’s removed, you may have bacterial vaginosis or another underlying issue.
And if your vagina smells like rot, or as Dr. Holmes puts it, “really strong and horrible like something died”? That almost always signals a forgotten tampon in the vagina, she says. If you don’t have any other symptoms, and if you’re not squeamish and can reach it, you can even take it out yourself, but ask your doctor if you need help (trust me, you won’t be the first one!). If you start to feel any other symptoms besides the odor - like itching, burning, or fever - it’s definitely time to seek medical help. And for the future: You should only use a tampon for up to 8 hours!
The best way to know whether a vaginal odor is normal? Simple: Smell your vagina a lot. Don’t be afraid to get very familiar with your own body. Get to know the variations of your discharge at different points of the month. You’ll spend a lot less time worrying, and you’ll know right away when something’s not right.