What’s Normal Vaginal Odor and What’s Not?

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For many women, the topic of vaginal odor can be awkward or embarrassing to discuss — we get it. However, it’s an essential aspect of women’s health to know what their healthy vagina smells like. That way, you’ll know when something like an infection or STI comes along, and you can instantly differentiate a healthy vaginal smell from one that’s not so healthy. [1]

Typically, the vagina produces a mild, musky scent that varies from woman to woman. Hygiene, medications, clothing, sexual activity, and diet can all influence your vaginal odor.[2] Since the vagina is teeming with natural bacteria that produce lactic acid to keep the pH levels acidic, this helps prevent harmful bacterial overgrowth and regulates a healthy smell.[3]

How Healthy Vaginas Smell

  • Tangy, fermented, or slightly sour are smells that come with the good bacteria that keep your vagina healthy and its microbiome well balanced.
  • A metallic or penny-like smell can be from the iron in recent menstrual bleeding, light bleeding after sex, or exposure to semen.
  • A bittersweet or a maple syrup smell may mean your vaginal microbiome is undergoing a slight fluctuation in good and bad bacteria.
  • Chemical smells can be due to a few drops of urine in your underwear (think ammonia), but if they linger after a shower and a change of clothing, take notice since it could be a sign of a bacterial infection.
  • Skunk-like smells or a body odor smell can signal stress or overworked sweat glands.[4]

What’s Not a Normal Vaginal Smell?

  • A healthy vagina should not smell fishy. A foul or dead fish odor can be a sign of bacterial vaginosis, a bacterial infection that results from an out-of-balance vaginal microbiome. It can also signal Trichomoniasis, a sexually transmitted infection. A greenish discharge may accompany a Trichomonas infection. Double down on a call to your healthcare provider for vaginal testing if you also have itching or burning when you urinate, along with an unusual discharge and a fishy smell.[5]
  • A healthy vagina should not smell like rotten meat left out too long. In this case, it could be from a forgotten tampon (it happens). The smell disappears once you or your health provider find and remove the tampon.[6]
  • A yeasty, bread-like odor could spell a yeast infection (Candidiasis), if it includes a thick, white discharge, itching, and burning symptoms.
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) can also have a fishy odor as well as a thick discharge, painful periods, and severe abdominal pain.[7]
  • More rarely, a vaginal odor can be caused by a rectovaginal fistula, where an opening between the vagina and rectum allows feces or gasses to leak into the vagina.[8]

Other Causes of Vaginal Odors

Vaginitis, a common irritation during pregnancy, may also change your normal vaginal smell due to eating different foods you crave while pregnant and the heightened sense of smell some women experience. An increase in pregnancy hormones may also cause different vaginal smells. During the postpartum period, vaginal odor is common as your uterus returns to its pre- pregnancy size by shedding lochia, a mixture of blood and mucus. Lochia may smell musty or metallic to some women.[9]

Understanding normal vaginal odors vs. abnormal vaginal odors is essential to maintaining proper vaginal health and a well-balanced vaginal microbiome and can help alert you to infections and other medical conditions. Prompt, proper treatment can resolve your symptoms and protect your long-term health.