Our bodies are incredibly complex, especially when it comes to our vaginal health. Vaginal odour is something we can feel embarrassed to talk about and sometimes we're even too scared to head to the doctor to get our questions answered.
But, before you freak out and wonder 'why does my vagina smell', remember this: most vagina smells are completely normal and just indicate a shift in your pH balance. There are other causes at play like forgetting your tampon, dehydration or you could have a vaginal infection you aren't even aware of.
Getting to know your body and vagina can help you identify what is and isn't 'normal' for you. To help you out, we've pulled together an ultimate guide to vagina smells, what's normal and what isn't and some common causes of vaginal odours.
Ready to dive in? Let's go.
Is it normal for my vagina to smell?
Forget everything you've learned from tampon and pad ads that tell us our vagina is supposed to smell like roses and daisies.
The truth? It is completely normal for your vagina to smell. In most cases, vaginal odours are normal. All vaginas naturally produce scents that tell us about our lifestyle, menstrual cycle, daily activities and overall health.
After all, we live busy lives and whether we're racing to work, running after children or going to an intense workout class, it's perfectly normal for your vagina to have a strong odour after any of these activities.
What's the deal with vaginal smell?
Vaginal odour basically depends on the vagina's pH levels (a.k.a how acidic your vagina is). There are various forms of good bacteria that live in your vagina that make up your vaginal flora.
This bacteria exists to keep your vagina at the right pH balance because healthy pH levels prevent you from a potential infection that can cause a strong vaginal odour . In most cases, vaginal odour is caused by a pH imbalance which can cause chemical smells, metallic smells, and fishy smells.
All the scents of a healthy vagina
Most vaginal smells are indicative of a change in your pH levels and are completely normal and even a sign of a healthy vagina. These are the most common smells you can experience:
Sour or tangy smell
This type of smell usually means the pH level in your vaginal flora is slightly more acidic than usual. A sour vaginal scent is usually associated with good bacteria in your vagina.
Copper or metallic smell
Your vagina may have a metallic smell when you're on your menstrual cycle because period blood contains iron.
A musky smell is usually caused by physical activity and wearing non-breathable underwear or clothes that trap sweat.
A chemical, bleach-like smell may be caused by a build-up of urine in your underwear or around your vulva. Urine contains a byproduct of ammonia called urea. When you're dehydrated, urea is not as diluted as it should be which could be causing a chemical smell.
The most common causes of vaginal odour
In most cases, vaginal odours are completely normal and can come from a shift in the pH balance.
However, sometimes an unpleasant smell in the vagina is indicative of a larger health concern, particularly if the smell doesn't go away on its own. Sometimes, a forgotten tampon can be the root cause of your vagina smell so aside from preventing toxic shock syndrome, head to your doctor to get rid of the forgotten tampon.
Let's run through some other common causes of vaginal odour you may or may not know about.
Bacterial vaginosis (BV)
Bacterial vaginosis is a common vaginal infection caused by an imbalance of bacteria that's normally present in the vagina which disrupts its natural balance . When you have bacterial vaginosis, the normal bacteria (especially lactobacilli) are replaced by an overgrowth of other mixed bacteria.
Although the cause of bacterial vaginosis is unknown, certain activities such as sexual activity and douching (a.k.a. washing your vagina) can increase your risk. If you've ever had a strong fishy smell or grey discharge, bacterial vaginosis may be the reason.
Trichomoniasis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a parasite called trichomonas vaginalis which can cause a strong fishy smell .
Other symptoms of trichomoniasis are vaginal itching, burning and redness. You also may notice a yellow or greenish discharge, pain or bleeding during sexual activity or after peeing.
A yeast infection is an infection of the vagina that causes vaginal itching and burning of the vulva (the area around the vagina) . Yeast infections are caused by an overgrowth of the fungus Candida and generally cause white, thick cottage cheese-like discharge.
Most yeast infections don't cause an unusual vaginal odour but if you're experiencing foul-smelling discharge it's probably a good idea to go to the doctor because if it's left untreated it can cause other serious health concerns.
Vaginal odours can even come from various types of foods we eat, but this usually resolves on its own. For example, food with a strong odour like fish, garlic, milk, coffee or excessive meat and alcohol can cause temporary changes in your vaginal odours.
However, if you notice your vagina smells long-term or it doesn't go away on its own, it might be a sign of an underlying cause so it might be worth seeing a doctor for a proper diagnosis to get to the bottom of it.
We've mentioned that urine can cause vaginal odour from dehydration where urea is not as diluted as it should be which causes a chemical, bleach-like smell.
But, urinary tract infections (UTIs) can also cause an unpleasant and strong smell in the vagina because of a build-up of harmful bacteria which can cause a fishy odour — cranberry juice can be helpful in the prevention and treatment of UTIs.
Women's health is a complex process and sometimes emotional stress and anxiety can have an impact on the body. Stress can alter your body's internal chemistry including your hormones and good bacteria, which can contribute to changes in vaginal smell.
Kin's Omega-3 DHA is specially formulated to maintain cardiovascular health and healthy cholesterol while supporting cognitive function and mental well-being.
Trapped sweat and discharge in your underwear
Did you know that sweat glands are present in your groin area where odour-producing apocrine glands can be causing your vagina to smell? But, this type of vaginal odour is completely harmless and normal.
To get rid of vaginal odour, it's best to practice good hygiene by showering shortly after exercise so you're not trapping sweat in your underwear, and wearing cotton underwear and breathable clothing.
In rare cases, cervical cancer and other gynecological cancers can cause can a strong, bad-smelling odour and heavy discharge.
A foul-smelling discharge can be a warning sign for the onset of cervical cancer so it's a good idea to get it checked out as soon as you notice something isn't right .
Can STIs cause vaginal odour?
Yes, STIs can cause vaginal odour and the same STIs that cause vaginal odour also cause vaginal discharge.
We've already mentioned that trichomoniasis is an STI that can cause vaginal odour, but chlamydia, which is the most common STI in Australia and gonorrhea are both transmitted through unprotected sex and can cause vaginal odours.
Do you need to do anything about vaginal smells?
Generally, you don't really need to do anything about vaginal smells as they are pretty normal and tend to disappear on their own.
But, if the vaginal odour is making you feel uncomfortable, here's what you can do to get rid of vaginal smells once and for all:
Wear breathable clothing
This includes wearing cotton underwear to make sure organisms aren't trapped around the vaginal area.
Practising good hygiene
Make sure you're taking a shower soon after exercising and don't sit in sweaty clothes for too long after physical activity.
Douching involves washing or cleaning out the inside of the vagina with water and other mixtures of fluids .
This can lead to more vaginal odours and health problems like pelvic inflammatory disease (an infection in the reproductive organs) . Instead, wash the outside of the vaginal area with warm water.
Washing with warm water
Wash your vaginal area regularly, however, don't wash the inside of your vagina with soap and avoid using vaginal cleaning products.
The vagina cleans itself and maintains the acidic pH levels and soaps can make things a lot worse. Instead, wash the vulva (the outside of the vagina) with plain, unscented soaps and warm water.
Consider a supplement
Kin Fertility’s Vaginal Probiotic contains Cranberry and a holistic blend to support a healthy female urinary tract health and vaginal flora for balanced care down there.
Our dietitian-backed formula contains cranberry to reduce the occurrence of cystitis, the most common UTI, along with premium ingredients to manage overall vaginal health.
When should I see the doctor?
Since vaginal odour is generally normal and can happen from time to time, you don't need to run to the doctor straight away. However, if you're experiencing prolonged unusual vaginal odour plus discharge, burning and itching, it's probably a good idea to head to your local GP to get a diagnosis.
Some vaginal odours are indicative of a larger health problem like bacterial vaginosis (BV) and trichomoniasis which if left untreated can cause more severe health conditions in your uterus or fallopian tubes.
The good news is that most causes of vaginal odour like BV and trichomoniasis can be treated and your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics to get rid of the odour and get your vagina back to a healthy state.
Ultimately, vaginal odour is completely normal and can sometimes signify a healthy vagina just doing its thing. If you start to notice persistent smells that don't go away on their own, even with regular good hygiene, it might be worth a visit to your local doctor to get it checked out.