Despite what certain advertisements for vaginal products may claim, there’s no reason for one’s vagina to be flower-scented. It’s totally OK for vaginas to have a smell, thanks to bacteria, sweat, your menstrual cycle and even your diet.
While there’s no reason to feel insecure about not smelling daisy-fresh (and whatever you do, do not douche, which can cause a vaginal infection, or use fragrance down there, as it’s the quickest way to contract allergic contact dermatitis), there are certain odors that may indicate a red flag about your overall health.
So what do different vaginal odors mean and which ones do you need to be aware of? Here’s what experts say.
Possible cause: According to Dr. Laura Purdy, chief medical officer at Wisp, a fishy odor “could be a sign of bacterial vaginosis (BV), which occurs when the amount of lactobacilli in the body grows to an unhealthy level.” A second cause, according to New York-based ob-gyn Dr. Alyssa Dweck, is a sexually transmitted infection, known as trichomoniasis, which is caused by a parasite and can cause genital itching, foul-smelling discharge and painful urination.
What experts want you to know: Both of these issues can be solved by antibiotics, so it’s important to make an appointment with your doctor in order to assess the situation.
Garbage or something rotten
Possible cause: Purdy says that there’s likely one culprit in this case — a tampon that has been left in the vagina for too long. Dweck notes, “This odor is incredibly pungent and worsens with duration of this or other foreign body. It might also suggest infection or rarely, a necrosing genital tumor or growth.”
What experts want you to know: If it is a tampon or other foreign body in one’s vagina, remove it immediately if you’re able to. Purdy says that if the smell persists or if you’re unable to find the tampon string, it’s “best to see a doctor.” Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is one potential risk of leaving a tampon or other foreign object — such as a menstrual cup or disc — in one’s vagina for too long, and symptoms include a high fever, vomiting or diarrhea, a rash on your palms and soles, confusion, headaches and muscle aches, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Possible cause: This smell can be a sign of pH imbalance, notes Purdy. “The body naturally creates a bacteria called lactobacilli, which has a slightly acidic pH, to fight off the growth of unhealthy bacteria infections,” she explains. “This smell can also be influenced by what you have been eating lately, especially if you have been eating anything with vinegar or garlic.”
What experts want you to know: “A vinegar or garlic-like vaginal odor is usually nothing to worry about, unless the smell is extremely strong or you’re feeling uncomfortable; if so, I recommend you speak with your doctor,” Purdy says.
Possible cause: The reason why you may smell urine is, well, because there is urine, says Dweck. “In some cases, urine leakage or poor toileting hygiene can lead to an ammonia-like genital odor,” she says. Purdy notes that a urine-like smell may mean you are dehydrated, which would therefore cause your urine to smell more strongly. An ammonia-like smell can also indicate a urinary tract infection (UTI).
What experts want you to know: If urine leakage is a consistent issue or you suspect you have a UTI, Purdy recommends seeing a doctor.
Possible cause: A yeast-like smell is typically a sign of a yeast infection. Dweck notes that this may come with “significant itching and thick, white discharge.”
What experts want you to know: “If you notice this vaginal odor, it is best to see a doctor to get clarity on whether this could be a sign of a yeast infection,” says Purdy. If it is a yeast infection, your doctor will likely prescribe an antifungal medication.
Possible cause: The pH of the vagina. “Coffee is slightly acidic, just as the pH of your vagina is slightly acidic,” says Purdy.
What experts want you to know: No need to worry about a coffee-like smell. “This coffee scent means your lactobacilli are doing their job and keeping you healthy,” Purdy explains.
Possible cause: An iron or metallic smell usually signifies blood, says Dweck. Purdy adds that this is usually “blood during menstruation.” It’s also possible for an iron or metallic smell to be present “after sexual intercourse,” as this scent “can also be caused by the vagina coming into contact with semen.”
What experts want you to know: “The bottom line with an iron or metallic scent is that this is nothing to worry about,” says Purdy.