Signs and Symptoms of Vaginal Odor
Causes and Risk Factors of Vaginal Odor
Again, it’s normal for your vagina to have a slight smell. But pay attention to any changes in smell as well as changes in your discharge or if you develop irritation, burning, or itching. Some causes of vaginal odor may include:
- Bacterial vaginosis (BV) This infection is caused by an overgrowth of bacteria in the vagina. Symptoms may include a strong, fishy odor and a thin, gray discharge. It’s the most common vaginal condition in women ages 15 to 44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Trichomoniasis A sexually transmitted infection (STI), trichomoniasis can cause vaginal odor. Other STIs, such as gonorrhea and chlamydia, typically aren't accompanied by a strong smell but may be the culprit, per the Mayo Clinic.
- A forgotten or stuck tampon A very strong vaginal odor can occur if you forget to take a tampon out or if one is stuck inside you. According to the British National Health Service, it is not possible for a tampon to get lost inside you. It can however be compressed at the top of your vagina. If you’re unable to remove the tampon yourself, it’s best to have your doctor extract it and check for infection.
- Douching Douching is a method of washing the inside of the vagina using water that’s usually mixed with other fluids, commonly vinegar, baking soda, or iodine. The effect it has is much different from washing yourself in the bath or shower, which is perfectly healthy. Doctors don't recommend douching because it can increase your risk for many health problems including STIs, and even interfere with conception. Douching removes healthy bacteria that the vagina needs to keep balanced and can actually make the problem worse in the long run. In addition, douching can promote overgrowth of harmful bacteria, which can lead to yeast infections or BV.If you already have a vaginal infection, douching may spread the infection into your uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries, which can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, a serious infection that causes infertility in 1 in 10 women who have it, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
- Poor hygiene Not bathing or showering regularly can lead to inflammation of the vaginal area, which can cause vaginal odor.
- Sweating The skin in the groin area is prone to sweating, which can cause vaginal odor.
- Diet What you eat and drink influences the smell of urine, and there's some evidence that what you eat can affect your vaginal odor. If your vagina smells off, foods with strong odor, such as garlic, could be the cause.
The smell of the vagina may change over the course of your menstrual cycle or during pregnancy, but these changes are normal.
- Your menstrual cycle Your vaginal smell likely changes during different stages in your cycle.
- Pregnancy According to the Cleveland Clinic, pregnant women are at a higher risk of having changes in vaginal smell due to hormonal changes and increased vaginal secretions.
Rare causes of vaginal odor include:
- Rectovaginal fistula This is a rare abnormal opening between the vagina and the rectum that allows feces to leak into the vagina, which can contribute to vaginal odor. Other symptoms include recurrent vaginal or urinary tract infections (UTIs), pain during sex, or stool in your vagina. A rectovaginal fistula may be caused by a childbirth injury; complications from a pelvic surgery, including hysterectomy; Crohn’s disease; or cancer treatment to the area, according to the Mayo Clinic.
- Cervical or vaginal cancer In rare cases, abnormal vaginal odor can sometimes be a symptom of cervical or vaginal cancer. Other symptoms of possible cervical or vaginal cancer are heavy vaginal discharge that can have a strong odor, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
How Is Vaginal Odor Diagnosed?
Remember: vaginal odor that happens because of a medical condition is usually associated with other signs and symptoms, like itching, burning, irritation, or discharge. Your doctor can help assess these symptoms through a vaginal exam and diagnostic tests.
Your doctor could also help you determine if medications, sweat, hormones, hygiene, or another lifestyle factor may be causing abnormal vaginal odor.
Treatments and Medication Options for Vaginal Odor
Remedies for your vaginal odor will depend on the cause. Your doctor can help determine which medications or natural remedies can help treat an underlying condition.
You may need to see your doctor for treatments that target a specific issue, especially an infection.
- Clindamycin (Cleocin)
- Metronidazole (Flagyl)
- Tinidazole (Tindamax)
Complications of Vaginal Odor
But if the odor is a symptom of an underlying condition that needs to be treated, complications could arise (not from the odor itself, but from whatever is causing the odor). Odor is often the result of an infection that requires antibiotics.
Related Conditions and Causes of Vaginal Odor
A number of conditions can change the bacterial balance in the vaginal area, leading to unusual odor. These include:
- Bacterial vaginosis As noted above, this common vaginal infection can cause a foul-smelling discharge.
- Menopause The decrease in estrogen that occurs during menopause can lead to changes in the vaginal environment and cause the growth of “bad” bacteria and increased discharge. If the discharge has a strong odor, it’s worth checking in with your doctor.
- STIs (sexually transmitted infections)
- Urinary tract infections (UTIs) and dehydration can sometimes cause urine to smell, which can in turn create an odor (sometimes likened to the smell of bleach or ammonia) in the vaginal area.
Resources We Love
Planned Parenthood offers a wealth of reliable information about women’s health — from sexual and reproductive issues and concerns to what a healthy vagina looks like — and what might indicate a problem.
This trusted site from Nemours, a nonprofit children’s health system, has feminine hygiene tips for teens (and parents) in clear, accessible language. They’ve also got a section on vaginal discharge — what’s normal and what’s not.
A go-to resource for medical advice, the Mayo Clinic offers comprehensive info on vaginal odor, from symptoms and causes to diagnosis and treatment. While you’re there, check out their helpful overview on vaginal health basics.
Additional reporting by Julie Marks and Brianna Majsiak.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
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