Despite all of the marketing that tells you otherwise, there is likely nothing wrong with your vaginal odor. It’s completely natural and normal for your vagina to have some kind of scent. And, no, that scent probably won’t be a field of wildflowers. It’s a vagina, not a perfume counter.
“When you look at what’s normal, it can have a mild or slight odor that’s not unpleasant,” Lauren Streicher, M.D., an associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells SELF. “There shouldn’t be a strong odor and it shouldn’t smell like the zoo or fish.” So if your discharge smells bad but not fishy, you’re probably OK (but you should still check out the reasons your vagina might smell below).
Vaginal odor is like sweat—everyone has their own scent, Jessica Shepherd, M.D., an assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology and director of Minimally Invasive Gynecology at The University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago, tells SELF. And chances are you smell just fine! But if you’re noticing a change in your vaginal odor that doesn’t go away, it’s worth bringing up with your doctor. Here are a few things that might cause your vaginal odor to go awry:
1. You accidentally left a tampon in there.
It happens—and probably more often than you’d think, says Dr. Streicher. Some people may put in a “just in case” tampon toward the end of their period and forget about it, don’t remember that they already have one in before putting in a new one, or forget and have sex with one in and it gets pushed sideways into the back of cervix, she says. “Every gynecologist has had the experience of a woman coming in with an odor, discovering it was a forgotten tampon, and feeling mortified,” she says. Unfortunately, it really, really stinks. “A forgotten tampon causes the absolute worst vaginal odor,” Dr. Streicher says.
The smell is usually caused by old blood, which has a bad scent when it oxidizes, Dr. Shepherd says. It can also change the pH of your vagina (which should be between 3.5 to 4.5), allowing it to become a breeding ground for different bacteria or an infection. While having a tampon lodged in your vagina stinks (literally), it’s luckily easy to remove during a visit to your gynecologist.
2. You have a bacterial infection.
Bacterial vaginosis (usually just known as BV) is the most common vaginal infection in women ages 15-44, per the CDC, and it happens when there is too much of certain bacteria in your vagina. This throws off the pH of your vagina and can create a bad, fishy odor in the process.
Experts aren’t sure what causes BV or how some people get it, but they do know that it usually occurs in people with vaginas who are sexually active. People who douche are also at an increased risk of developing BV. The odor actually happens due to the change in your vaginal pH when the balance of good and bad bacteria down there is thrown out of whack, Dr. Shepherd says. Luckily, it’ll go away once BV is treated with antibiotics, Dr. Streicher says.
3. You ate something funky.
You’ve probably heard that eating pineapple or citrus fruits can make you smell sweeter down there, and that fried foods can make you stinky. “I hear this all the time, but it’s all anecdotal,” Dr. Streicher says. There’s no scientific evidence behind this, but there could be something to it.
The healthier you are on the inside, the better or more neutral of a scent your body will give off, Dr. Shepherd says. “Inflammatory foods can cause a lot of internal inflammation which will manifest as odors,” she says. If you find that your normal scent is off and you know you recently ate a bunch of crappy foods, try switching to more whole foods and see where it gets you. If it doesn’t help, call your doctor to get checked out.
4. You recently had sex without a condom.
You might notice things smell a little different down there after sex, which makes sense. You’ve got your fluids mixing with another person’s fluids, and maybe some sweat, too. Plus, semen has an elevated pH, Dr. Streicher says, and that can cause an odor to form. Typically, the smell will clear up on its own within a day or so—or after you shower—but if it persists, call your doctor.
5. You’re on your period.
You’ve probably found that your vaginal odor smells a little more intensely when you’re bleeding, and that’s normal, Dr. Shepherd says. Blood has an elevated pH, and that can throw your vaginal flora off a little during your period. Usually it’s not a huge change in scent and it goes away once your period wraps up, she says.
6. You have a yeast issue.
You probably associate yeast infections with a certain discharge, but they can also cause a particular odor to develop. “It’s a yeasty smell,” says Dr. Streicher. “It’s not leave-the-room bad but it has a characteristic scent.” The pH of your vagina doesn’t actually change when you have a yeast issue—it’s just that yeast has an odor. So if your discharge smells bad but not fishy, it could be a yeast infection. OTC yeast infection medications should help clear up the infection—and smell, she says, but if you’ve tried that once and it didn’t work, check in with your doctor.
7. You have trichomoniasis.
A fishy smell down there could signal an STI called trichomoniasis, Alyssa Dweck, M.D., a gynecologist in Westchester, New York, and assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, tells SELF.
Trichomoniasis is caused by a tiny parasite that moves between people during sex, and it’s actually pretty common, according to the Mayo Clinic. In addition to a foul-smelling vaginal discharge, it can make your genitals itch and cause painful peeing, though many people experience no symptoms.
8. You have another STI.
Gonorrhea and chlamydia can also cause foul-smelling discharge, says Dweck. And just like with trichomoniasis, you many not experience symptoms. If you notice any unusual discharge or have pain during sex or urination, see your doctor to rule out an STI.
9. You have pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
PID happens when sexually transmitted bacteria—possibly from an untreated chlamydia or gonorrhea infection—travel from your vagina to your uterus, ovaries, or fallopian tubes, according to the Mayo Clinic.
In addition to having heavy discharge that’s smelly, you might experience pain in your lower stomach and pelvic region, bleeding during or after sex, fever, chills, and painful pee, per the Mayo Clinic. Smelly discharge and painful pee or bleeding between periods can signal an STI, and prompt treatment of an STI can help prevent PID, so see your doctor right away if you’re dealing with any of these symptoms.
10. You worked out recently.
If you hit the gym and notice an unpleasant vaginal odor afterwards, it’s probably due to trapped sweat down there, says Dweck. Tightly-knit fabrics that are meant to trap and wick away sweat can sometimes cause a musky smell.There’s no need to get rid of your favorite workout leggings, but be sure to shower right after exercising (aka, don’t sit around in sweaty clothes). And remember: you don’t need anything crazy to clean your vagina—plain water or mild soap are truly all you need.
11. You’re wearing the wrong underwear.
The type of undies you choose matters. Certain materials trap in heat and moisture, affecting the overall balance of good and bacteria—and yes, your vaginal odor, SELF previously reported. The classic advice when shopping for underwear is to go for cotton, but there’s no scientific evidence that shows that synthetic materials (like polyester or silk) are bad for you. The bottom line? If you notice an unpleasant change to your vaginal odor, try switching the material of the underwear you buy (i.e., if you normally wear silk, try cotton or polyester). Changing it up might just do the trick.