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That Vaginal Smell — What Is It?

April 19, 2023

Like it or not, your vagina has a certain scent. It’s slightly sweet, and it indicates that you have good lactobacillus — in other words, you have plenty of the good bacteria that keep the area healthy.

At times, the odor may change to a smell that’s unpleasant. Copper, fishiness, a skunk-like waft and ammonia are among what you might experience. Those indicate something might be wrong.

What Causes a Vagina To Smell Bad?

First off, let’s take yeast infections off the list. Yeast infections are common in women who menstruate, yet odor isn’t a primary complaint. Itching, and a white discharge that looks like cottage cheese, are typical symptoms. Anti-fungal medications clear these up within a few days.

A fishy smell is also common. It’s usually caused by bacterial vaginosis. In essence, your PH balance is off. For example, sometimes Gardnerella or another bacteria dominates in the vaginal area for a period of time. In addition to the odor, you might get itchy and/or have a green, white or gray discharge. You can get BV, as it’s known, several ways, including:

  • Predisposition. You might just be biologically wired to sometimes smell this way. Check with your doctor, though, to make sure you don’t have a medical condition that needs treatment.
  • Douching. Don’t do it. Many women douche to improve their vaginal odor, yet in fact douching messes with the PH balance and can ultimately cause a fishy smell. Scented soaps, bath bubbles and bath bombs might upset your PH balance in a similar way. If that happens, stop using them.
  • Semen. You might smell fishy after intercourse, due to semen interacting with your vaginal fluids.
  • Trichomoniasis. Men and women can get an infection called trichomoniasis. It’s caused by a parasite, is sexually transmitted and can cause premature delivery in pregnant women. It can lead to a fishy smell, and/or a frothy green discharge, in the vaginal area.
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease. Sexual activity can leave bacteria on your bottom. That might lead to an infection in your ovaries, uterus or fallopian tubes — and cause odors. Antibiotics are likely to help.
  • Multiple sexual partners. Having a variety of companions in the bedroom can affect your PH balance.

If you have a fishy smell and it persists, see the doctor in case it needs to be treated.

Other Causes of Vaginal Odors

Your vaginal flora may change in other ways, too.

  • Copper smell. Blood has iron in it. If you bleed heavily during menstruation or for another reason, you might notice a smell like pennies. That will lift as the bleeding tapers off.
  • Skunk-like smell. Just as you might smell like a skunk’s spray under your armpits, you might get that way in the vaginal area. In both cases, the cause is sweat. Your apocrine glands are the culprit. A shower will take care of the problem in a sweaty crotch. While scented soaps are fine on the rest of your body, use a mild unscented one around the vulva. Never wash inside your vagina; it cleans itself.
  • Rogue tampons. If you forget to remove a tampon, over a day or two your nose will alert you that something is amiss. Remove the tampon and you will be fine.
  • Food-based odors. Garlic, fish and other foods may surprise you by changing your flora. Even asparagus, broccoli and certain spices might set of a distinct aroma. That should lift after a short time.
  • Ammonia. If you experience incontinence — i.e. urinate away from the toilet — the urine left on your clothing might start to smell like ammonia. A quick wipe and change of undergarments are all you need.
  • Cancer. Cervical and vaginal cancers can cause unusual odors.
  • Rectovaginal fistula. If you have a rectal tear during childbirth, feces might come out of the vagina. See a doctor to have it fixed.

What To Do if Your Vagina Smells Bad

If your flora is off-kilter in any way, pay attention. The offending odor might go away as the cause dissipates. If it doesn’t improve on its own, see a healthcare provider. That way, if you have an infection, you can get a proper diagnosis and then an antibiotic. If the cause is something bigger, you can start on the road to tackling it.

To avoid having the problem in the first place, maintain a healthy lifestyle. Eat a balanced diet of natural foods; drink water all day long; stick to only one sexual partner; and wear loose-fitting clothing, including underwear, that allows your skin to breathe.

Use your nose, and use common sense.

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