Popular vagina myth-busting ob-gyn Dr. Jen Gunter has an amazing saying: "It's a vagina, not a piña colada!" The point being, your vagina doesn't need to smell or taste fruity — or really, like anything else besides a vagina.
That includes when you're on your period. Because you may notice that, like your vagina, your period has an odor. And you know what? Most of the time, that's actually A-OK.
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Here, Taraneh Shirazian, MD, a board-certified ob-gyn with NYU Langone, breaks down different period smells and their meanings.
1. Metallic or Like Iron
"The period itself is basically endometrial tissue that's built up over the course of the month. If an egg is not fertilized and implanted, that lining is released," Taraneh Shirazian, MD, a board-certified ob-gyn with NYU Langone, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
The blood is from the lining of the uterus, and it has an odor all its own — it generally smells metallic. In other words, this is a completely normal smell.
"As blood exits the vagina, especially if there's a lot of bleeding, it can change the pH of the vagina," Dr. Shirazian explains. When the normal bacterial balance of the vagina is thrown off, you may develop bacterial vaginosis, or BV. This can result in a fishy smell.
Dr. Shirazian adds that this is often "self-limiting," meaning it will go away on its own without any particular treatment.
If you don't want to wait, you can talk to your doctor about a prescription for metronidazole, an antibiotic treatment for BV. (If it's tough to get to your gyno, there are online sexual health companies, such as Wisp, where you can chat with a doc about your symptoms, see if the Rx is a good option for you and then get them shipped to your home.)
Other options include eating yogurt with active cultures or popping a probiotic.
Let's say, though, that your BV comes back every month, and you're tired of it. (BV can also itch and burn, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so it's not exactly a walk in the park.) If your periods are also really heavy and long-lasting, talk to your doctor about options that can minimize the length and duration of your period, such as oral hormonal birth control or an intrauterine device (IUD), Dr. Shirazian says.
Some vaginal bacteria can naturally have a sweet smell, according to Women's Medical Associates of Nashville. This is nothing to worry about.
But if the scent is strong and you notice other symptoms, such as cottage cheese-like discharge, burning, dryness or itchiness, you could have a yeast infection. In that case, make an appointment with your doctor.
4. Rotten or Foul
This kind of odor should raise a red flag.
"I've seen retained tampons that can cause a really foul smell because someone has forgotten to take them out," Dr. Shirazian says. If you think you may have a tampon stuck up there but aren't able to get it out on your own, make an appointment with your ob-gyn ASAP.
It's also possible that you have an infection. If you have pus-like, green or frothy discharge, see your doctor right away, Dr. Shirazian says.
What to Do About Period Odor
What you want to avoid is using any sort of fragranced feminine wipe designed to freshen things up down below. "The problem with these is that they just cover up the odor. The first step is always figuring out the underlying source and treating that," Dr. Shirazian says.
Similarly, vaginal washes are risky, too. You might find that you do fine with them, but they may also throw off your vagina's pH and increase the odds of a yeast infection, she says. (Also, they're unnecessary, because, remember: Your vagina is a self-cleaning oven.) Mild soap and water do just fine, because they can cleanse the area without changing vaginal pH. Simply let soapy water run down your body in the shower.
Oh, and if you wear period underwear (which are truly wonderful, btw), you may want to consider if you need to change them or if they're being properly washed. Some styles can hold several tampon's worth of blood, but yours may need to be changed sooner. Just something worth checking.
When to See a Doctor About Period Odor
A rotten or foul odor from your nether region warrants a trip to the ob-gyn, Dr. Shirazian says.
Have a fever? In pain? Those are additional symptoms that should spur a trip to the doctor, as these may signal an infection that needs to be evaluated and treated immediately. Docs want to make sure that something — like pelvic inflammatory disease — hasn't been overlooked.
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.