Let’s get one thing out of the way right now: Despite what your awful ex or the latest douching ads say, your vagina is supposed to have a bit of an odour.
Sometimes a little musty
“Just like with the gut, the vagina has its own microbiome filled with different bacteria and yeast, many of which are incredibly helpful,” says Dr Mary Jane Minkin, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut. And, yep, those bacteria give your vag its signature scent.
But uh, what does that typically smell like? “The acidic pH naturally found in the vagina might make it a little sour smelling, sometimes a little musty,” says Dr Christine Masterson, obstetric-gynaecologist and chief of the women and children’s service line at Summit Medical Group. “But it shouldn’t be an overwhelming odour.”
Still, there are times when you catch a waft that smells a bit... off. The cause can be as innocuous as sweat or as troubling as an infection, says Dr Minkin, so it’s worth taking a deeper whiff (yes, really), especially if the unusual aroma is accompanied by symptoms like itching or discharge.
Scan through the scents below to see if your smell is on our list, but don’t hesitate to get yourself checked out by a professional either way.
The most likely culprit behind this scent is bacterial vaginosis (BV), the most common vaginal infection in women ages 15 to 44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The infection can creep in when the vagina’s pH gets thrown out of whack by an overgrowth of “bad” bacteria, says Dr Minkin.
Docs aren’t sure why this happens, but BV isn’t an STI, stresses Dr Minkin, so BV on its own is pretty harmless. Still, you may be able to re-balance your vaginal acidity with some over-the-counter “pH warfare”, says Dr Minkin. Check your local drugstore for a pH gel, which is designed to balance out your vagina’s pH and nix odours.
If this doesn’t take away the smell within a week or so, see your ob-gyn. You might need an antibiotic to clear up the infection, or you might actually have trichomoniasis, a common and easily treatable (via antibiotics) STI.
Read more: Seriously, why is my vagina so itchy?
Most yeast infections aren’t terribly smelly, but occasionally the thick, cottage cheese-like discharge that’s a hallmark of the itchy nuisance has a faint scent of beer or yeast. If you notice redness or burning around your vagina, or have pain after you pee, this is the likely cause, says Dr Minkin.
Diabetic women may especially notice this since yeast feed on sugar, and diabetic women tend to have more glucose (a.k.a. sugar) in their vaginal secretions, says Dr. Minkin. See your doc about what’s going on down there, and she might prescribe something or recommend something you can buy OTC.
Two questions: Did you just pound out a major sweat session at the gym and are you wearing synthetic underwear (think: nylon or polyester)?
Exercise and non-breathable knickers can cause a musky smell from trapped sweat, says Dr Minkin. It should go away as soon as you shower (use just water or a mild soap). To minimise the scent in the future, switch to cotton undies (or at least ones that have a cotton lining) and don’t sit around with sweaty clothes.
Of all the scents your vagina can have, this is definitely the most concerning one. A tampon that’s been left in your vagina for days or longer can smell rancid or foul. “The scent is brought on by an overgrowth of bacteria in a confined space,” she says.
To dislodge it yourself, lie on your back or squat with one foot propped on the toilet, then reach into your vagina with clean fingers to search for the string. No luck? See your ob-gyn who can use a speculum to get the job done.
One thing to note, though: If left behind too long the bacteria can sometimes (but rarely) trigger toxic shock syndrome, a deadly condition linked to tampon use. If you know your tampon’s been in for more than eight hours (or, tbh, you can’t remember the last time you changed it), and you’ve got flu-like symptoms (fever, nausea, achiness), it’s time to see a doc, asap.
Read more: 10 reasons you’ve got bumps on your vagina
Blood (you know, from your period) can change the pH of your vagina, making it smell coppery or tinny, says Dr Minkin. You can wash your vulva with soap – just avoid going crazy with strong scented soaps because they can throw the pH even further out of whack, says Dr Minkin. But other than that, you’ve just gotta ride this one out.
There’s a couple different reasons why your vagina might take on a chemical smell of bleach or ammonia: Dr Masterson says that BV – which, again, usually smells fishy – can sometimes smell like ammonia instead.
There’s also a chance that the smell is actually coming from your urine, especially if you’re dehydrated. Lastly, Dr Masterson says that intercourse (specifically the low-acid pH level of sperm) can trigger an ammonia smell, and so can any lubricants and spermicides you might have used. Basically, you can wait this smell out a little bit to see if it fades on its own. If it doesn’t in a few days, check in with your obstetric-gynaecologist.
Read more: So, um, why is my discharge brown?
If you notice a sweet smell down there, you might not be super inclined to think anything is wrong (it’s better than a rotten smell, right?!). And you’re pretty much right: Dr Masterson says this is usually diet-related.
“Sometimes citrus fruit can cause a sweet odour,” she says. “Asparagus and garlic are known to change the way urine and discharge smell, too.”
That said, she adds that yeast can sometimes cause a sweet odour, so if you’re also having symptoms of a yeast infection, grab an OTC treatment or check in with your doc.
This article was originally published on www.womenshealthmag.com