Vaginas have a smell to them, and sometimes, the odor can be pungent. A strong odor can, understandably, make you feel a bit self-conscious or concerned that it's a symptom of a larger problem, like an infection or disease.
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But for the most part, experts say not to worry. "Most of the time, there's no big issue," Adi Katz, MD, an ob-gyn at Lenox Hill Hospital, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
It's normal for genitals to have a bit of an odor, says Maria Sophocles, MD, ob-gyn and sexual medicine specialist of Women's Healthcare of Princeton.
For one thing, she points out, the vulva (that's the visible, outer portion of the genitals for people with vaginas) has hair follicles, along with sweat and oil glands. "It has a lot of properties of other parts of your body," Dr. Sophocles says (think: your underarms). So it's not so surprising that the area would have an odor.
The vagina is naturally home to all sorts of bacteria, Dr. Katz explains — and those can also be a source of variation to your personal odor.
"Throughout the month, with the changes due to hormones and our menstrual cycle, the bacteria may shift a little bit, which can cause different odors," she says.
In general, the pH of the vagina is acidic, Dr. Katz says. But all sorts of things can cause the pH to become more basic (alkaline), making it hospitable to certain bacteria that can lead to irritation, discharge and odor, she says.
Many variations in odor are temporary.
"In general, odor is a basic variation of what a woman smells like down there," Dr. Sophocles says.
Still, an unusual scent is worth noting, particularly if it lingers. Here, gynecologists share some of the odors patients commonly bring up, along with their potential causes.
Should You Douche?
If you find the smell of your vagina unpleasant, you might be tempted to clean it or cover up the scent. After all, that’s what we do elsewhere on our body: We shower frequently, apply deodorant daily, spray on scent and so on. But efforts to clean the vagina and vulva tend to backfire.
“Most women probably over-wash and strip the vulva of protective oils,” Dr. Sophocles says.
There’s no need to clean inside your vagina. Most importantly, don’t douche. The vagina “cleans itself,” Dr. Sophocles says. When you douche — with water, vinegar or anything else — it messes with the vagina’s normal pH balance. This, in turn, “encourages the bacteria to grow abnormally, which then can set you up for odor, which can make you want to wash more, which sets you up for more odor,” Dr. Sophocles says.
It's possible — but not very likely — that a sweet scent could indicate a yeast infection, Dr. Sophocles says. This fungal infection is typically characterized by a cottage cheese-like vaginal discharge, itching and irritation of the vagina and vulva, per the Mayo Clinic.
"Yeast infections usually don't have much of an odor," says Shirley V. Galucki, MD, an ob-gyn with Dartmouth-Hitchcock.
A sweet smell to your vagina could indicate a problem elsewhere in your system, Dr. Galucki says. For instance, it could indicate high blood sugar.
"If someone has a sweet smell from the vagina, I'd encourage them to get tested and check their blood sugar," Dr. Katz says. "They may have a problem with their sugar balance overall."
There's probably no need to be concerned if your vagina has a sour odor. This could just be the everyday odor of your vagina, Dr. Katz says. "The vagina is an acidic environment," she reminds us.
One of the "good" bacteria that lives there is acidophilus. That may sound familiar, because it's the bacteria found in yogurt. "What [people] may refer to as a sour smell may just be the natural smell that should be in the vagina," she says — a yogurt-like tanginess.
It's also possible that the odor is due to something you ate. Certain foods can shift the pH of the vaginal environment, Dr. Sophocles says. This effect is usually short-lived, she notes.
When to Call a Doctor
Vaginas do have a scent, and generally, that’s not an issue. “If you have a strong odor, we would recommend getting checked out to make sure it’s not anything else,” Dr. Galucki says.
That’s particularly true if the odor is accompanied by other symptoms, such as itching, burning and discharge, per the Mayo Clinic.
You're not alone if you've smelled a fishy odor emanating from your vagina. "That's the most common thing people report," Dr. Sophocles says.
A fishy odor may be due to bacterial vaginosis (BV), which occurs when there's an overgrowth of one form of bacteria in the vagina Dr. Katz says. BV is the most common vaginal condition, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Other symptoms of BV include itching, burning during urination and gray, white or green discharge, according to the Mayo Clinic. While it's possible for BV to clear up on its own, the CDC recommends getting treated with antibiotics — otherwise, BV increases your risk of STDs, and for pregnant people, increases the likelihood of premature birth or low birth weight.
There's also the possibility that the odor could be the result of trichomoniasis, a sexually transmitted disease. This disease can be treated with antibiotics, per the Office on Women's Health.
There's another potential simple explanation for a fish odor: Your natural body sweat. After a long day of running around, particularly if you're wearing tight clothes, you may have a more potent, fish-like odor, Dr. Katz says. "It doesn't necessarily mean anything is wrong."
Bottom line: If your vagina has a persistent fishy scent that's not your typical odor, a visit to the doctor may be in order — while it's possible this odor is just due to sweat, it could be the result of an infection or STD.
4. Tangy or Fermented
Again, this could simply be the scent of the bacteria in your vagina, Dr. Katz says.
If it's not your familiar odor, you might want to investigate. This could be yeast, and it could be BV, Dr. Sophocles says.
"You do probably need to have a doctor look at discharge under the microscope," Dr. Sophocles says — this will help identify what's causing the odor.
This scent didn't ring any immediate bells with the gynecologists we spoke to.
It's possible, Dr. Katz says, that it could be linked to something you're eating — a pungent food (like, say, asparagus) might cause a shift in the odor of your vagina, in the same way that it can make your urine temporarily smell different, Dr. Katz says.
Or, what smells to one person like a "fishy" odor (see above) may be more like "vinegar" to another.
6. Foul or Rotten
This could be cause for concern.
"If you're getting a foul odor, then we do think about sexually transmitted diseases," Dr. Galucki says.
Trichomoniasis could be the cause of this odor, so a visit to your health care provider is in order — there, your doctor may do a pelvic exam or look under the microscope to see if the single-cell parasite behind this disease is present, per the Office of Women's Health.
Forgetfulness could also be behind this odor — if you accidentally forget to remove a tampon, or if some cotton tissue gets stuck in the vagina, it can cause a noticeable and unpleasant odor. "After a few days it may start smelling rotten," Dr. Katz says.
Forgetting to remove a tampon happens. In fact, "we see it relatively commonly," Dr. Galucki says. After all, life is busy, and periods tend to be light at their tail end. The good news: "We can treat it really quickly," Dr. Galucki says.
7. Metallic or Coppery
You're most likely to smell a metallic or coppery odor when you have your period.
"There's a specific odor to menstruation. It can be unpleasant, but it doesn't indicate that something is wrong," Dr. Sophocles says.
Because there's iron in blood, it can have a coppery odor, she says.
How to Keep Your Vagina Clean and Smelling Good
Your vagina will never be free from scent entirely. And all sorts of everyday activities — such as having your period or having sex — can change the bacterial makeup in your vagina, leading to odor changes, Dr. Katz notes. Still, following these habits can help prevent bad odors:
- Choose the right undergarments: Opt for cotton underwear, Dr. Katz recommends. And wear looser clothing, so it can air out, she says.
- Stay away from panty liners: Wearing a pad or panty liner during menstruation is fine. But the rest of the month, don't stick one to your underwear. "They can cause a lot of irritation to the vulva and make you more prone to having vaginal infections," Dr. Katz says.
- Try a sitz bath: If your vagina does feel irritated, try a sitz bath, Dr. Katz recommends. Fill your tub (or an actual sitz bath, which goes over your toilet seat) with warm water up to your hips and 1/4 to 1/2 cup salt, she says — sit there with your legs open for around 10 minutes, then rinse off. "That's a great way to sooth your skin and kill irritating bacteria," Dr. Katz says.
- Never, ever douche: It bears repeating, because every expert agrees that douching is the enemy of a healthy vagina. "We recommend not douching because it could throw off the bacteria balance," Dr. Galucki says — that makes odor worse. Plus, if you have an infection, douching can push it up into the uterus, she points out. "So if you have a bad odor, you do not want to douche."
- Don't over-clean: "You don't want to use scented sprays and soaps because that could actually make it worse," Dr. Galucki says. Instead, simply use a gentle, unscented soap on your vulva (no need to clean inside your vagina).
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.