Why does my vagina smell?

1st September, 2022 • 13 min read

Ever wondered exactly how you should smell down there? It’s completely normal for your vagina to have a slight scent. You may find the odour changes throughout your menstrual cycle and it might also be more noticeable at certain times. For instance, you may notice your vagina smells after sex or after you’ve been sweating.

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Not surprisingly, if your vagina starts to smell different it can make you feel self-conscious and you may feel embarrassed about telling your doctor – but you shouldn't be. Most causes of a smelly vagina are very treatable.

Read on to learn about some of the most common causes of vaginal odours and whether your scent is something to worry about.

What does a healthy, normal vagina smell like?

Everyone has their own unique scent – and your personal odour depends on a few different things. But generally, a healthy vagina has a mild smell that people often describe as slightly musky.

“A lot of women worry about how they smell, even if it’s perfectly normal,” says

Dr Adiele Hoffman
, doctor and Healthily expert. “Sadly, there’s been a culture of telling women that vaginas shouldn’t smell, or should smell like a summer meadow. So we’ve had products that aim to cover up our natural odours, like vaginal deodorants and scented pantyliners and period products. But a healthy vagina does have a smell. Often, sexual partners find it attractive, and the knowledge of that intimate scent creates a bond.”

But sometimes, your vagina can smell wrong for you, and that might mean you need to take action to restore the natural balance. If you’re noticing an out-of-the-norm scent, which is either really unpleasant (particularly foul or fishy), you should speak to a doctor. A change in smell can sometimes be a sign that there’s something wrong – like an infection. So here’s what you need to know.

Find useful information on other areas of vaginal health with our

complete Guide
.

Different vaginal smells – what do they mean?

Your vagina smells like fish

Bacterial vaginosis

Experiencing a fishy smell down there? It can be a tell-tale sign of

bacterial vaginosis (BV)
. Every vagina is full of many different types of bacteria, which is natural and healthy. But an overgrowth of certain bacteria changes the balance and can result in BV.

As well as a strong fishy smell (particularly after sex), you may notice a change in the colour or consistency of your

discharge
, including:

  • greyish-white discharge
  • thin and watery discharge

BV doesn’t usually cause any soreness or itching – around half of women who have BV experience no symptoms at all.

BV can be treated with a course of antibiotics, so if you think you might have it, make an appointment with your doctor or sexual health clinic. It's especially important to see a doctor if you're pregnant, as there's a small chance BV could cause complications with your pregnancy.

Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis
, a
sexually transmitted infection (STI)
caused by a parasite known as Trichomonas vaginalis (TV), can also lead to a strong, fishy odour, plus:

  • discharge that is yellow-green in colour and frothy, thick or thin in consistency
  • itching, soreness and swelling around your vagina
  • discomfort or pain when peeing or having sex

Like BV, trichomoniasis can be treated with antibiotics, which your doctor or local sexual health clinic can prescribe.

Your vagina smells like onions and garlic

Your diet can have an impact on how your body smells, and that can include your vagina.

Eating foods with a strong scent – including garlic, onion and spices – may affect the smell of your vagina. That’s because food odour comes out of your sweat glands, also called your apocrine glands, which are all over your body, including the outside of your vagina.

Some early research has suggested certain food could change the bacteria that live in your vagina, possibly coming from your intestine or working in other ways we are yet to fully understand. Good nutrition may even help prevent vaginal infections and the odours that go with them.

Your vagina smells like metal

Have you ever noticed your vagina can have a metallic scent, like copper pennies?

This is common during your period, possibly because there is iron in your menstrual blood, which can give off a metallic smell.

Your vagina smells like yeast

Thrush
, also referred to as candidiasis, can cause a sweet or beer-like smell to come from your vagina. Thrush is a common yeast infection, which causes a yeasty smell, but most women don’t find the smell unpleasant. You may also have:

  • itching and irritation of your vagina and surrounding area
  • a creamy white, cottage cheese-like discharge
  • stinging and soreness when you pee or when you’re having sex

If this is your first time you’ve had thrush, or you’re under 16 or over 60, see a doctor. Thrush can usually be treated by taking an antifungal tablet or putting a pessary into your vagina.

Your vagina smells like bleach (chlorine)

“Some women notice a bleach-like scent after sex,” says Dr Adiele Hoffman, doctor and Healthily expert. “This could be because semen is often said to have a bleach or chlorine-like smell, or it could be down to the type of condom or lubricant you’re using. If the smell after sex really bothers you, try a different brand of condoms or an unscented lube to see if that makes a difference.”

Sometimes, if you can smell ammonia when you go to the toilet, it may be a sign of a

urinary tract infection (UTI)
. The smell suggests you may have bacteria in your bladder, kidneys and urethra. You may also have:

  • pee that’s cloudy or has blood in it
  • pain when you pee
  • the urge to pee more often
  • fever

If you have any symptoms of a UTI or the smell doesn’t go away, speak to your doctor.

Your vagina smells rotten

A vagina that smells really foul or rotten could be due to one of several things.

Tampon left in your vagina

If you’ve forgotten to remove a tampon or thought you had one in and now can’t find it, there’s a chance that it may be compressed at the top of your vagina. This can happen when you have sex forgetting you’re wearing a tampon, or you don’t remember to take a tampon out before you put another one in. It can cause discharge with an extremely bad smell.

First of all, try not to panic. A tampon won’t get lost inside you because it can’t get past your cervix - it will just stay in your vagina until it’s taken out. Try to remove it yourself first. Wash your hands and squat down (in the bath, for example) - that can help push the tampon out towards the entrance of your vagina. Then sweep a finger around inside in a circle and see if you can get hold of it. If you can’t get it out, go to your doctor or your local sexual health clinic, who will be able to remove it quickly and easily. Or go to the emergency department if the tampon has been there for more than 8 hours and you:

  • have pelvic pain
  • have an unpleasant smell or vaginal discharge
  • have a high temperature

That’s because tampons are linked to a rare but life-threatening bacterial infection called

toxic shock syndrome
- so don’t take any chances.

A fistula

A fistula is an abnormal opening between your reproductive system and your intestines or your bladder. It’s a serious condition that can cause an unpleasan- smelling discharge, as well as poo or pee in your discharge.

A fistula can be caused by surgery or injury from giving birth. It may also form after an infection or due to certain bowel conditions.

Speak to a doctor urgently if you have any symptoms of a fistula, so they can find the cause and treat you.

Pelvic inflammatory disease and STIs

Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is another possible cause of an unpleasant-smelling vagina. An infection of your reproductive organs, PID is often a complication of certain untreated STIs, including chlamydia and gonorrhoea. These STIs can also sometimes cause a bad smell on their own, even if they don’t lead to PID.

As well as a foul-smelling vaginal discharge, symptoms of PID can include:

  • a high temperature
  • pain or discomfort during sex
  • a burning sensation when you pee
  • bleeding in between periods and after sex
  • pain around your lower tummy and pelvis
  • painful periods
  • a discharge that isn’t normal for you, which may be yellow or green

The good news is PID - and STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhoea - can usually be treated with antibiotics. But it’s important that you get help sooner rather than later because PID can cause long-term fertility problems if left untreated. Any sexual partners you’ve had in the last 6 months are usually tested and treated as well.

If you have any symptoms of PID or any other STI, see a doctor urgently or go to a sexual health clinic.

Who is most at risk of vaginal infections?

Vaginal infections can affect how your vagina smells. Things that can increase your risk of developing vaginal infections are:

  • taking antibiotics – taking these can change the balance of bacteria that live in your vagina, so you may be at higher risk of yeast infections
  • certain conditions –
    diabetes
    can increase your risk of vaginal infections because high blood sugar levels create an l environment for an overgrowth of both bacteria and yeast
  • over-cleaning your vagina – douching can disrupt your vagina’s bacterial balance, causing an overgrowth of harmful bacteria. Read more about
    how to safely clean your vagina
  • contraceptive intrauterine device (IUD)
    - there’s some limited evidence using one could raise your risk of infections such as BV. The jury’s still out but if you have an IUD and keep noticing smelly discharge, see your doctor
  • unhealthy lifestyle habits – smoking can alter your vaginal flora and even increase the risk of infections, like BV. The reasons behind this are still being researched- early research has suggested that women who smoke have lower levels of lactobacillus, one of the key bacterias found in vaginal flora, and were more likely to get infections

Other things that can make your vagina smell bad

Why does my vagina smell after sex?

Like any other part of your body, the area around your vagina and vulva (the outer part of your genitals) can sweat. You have a lot of sweat glands around your vulva, especially the outer lips. Sweating here can make your vagina smell after sex - or other kinds of exercise.

There are other reasons your vagina might smell different after sex. Sometimes, semen can change the way your vagina smells. A fishy odour after sex may also be a symptom of BV.

Why does my vagina smell during pregnancy?

Your vagina’s pH balance usually protects it against harmful bacteria. But during pregnancy, that balance can be disrupted by changing hormone levels, raising your risk of infections that can make your vagina smell.

Infections may need different treatment during pregnancy. So if you’re pregnant and notice an unusual discharge or smell, see a midwife or doctor.

Does menopause make your vagina smell?

Any hormonal shifts, from puberty through to menopause, can affect your vaginal flora.
At menopause, research has found your vagina’s pH levels change when your oestrogen levels drop. You might notice a watery discharge and a different smell to what you’re used to. Falling hormones can also cause

vaginal dryness
, which may lead to irritation and inflammation, and that could also cause some discharge.

These changes mean your risk of vaginal infections can go up at menopause. Research has found that BV is the most common genital infection in perimenopausal women, which can affect the scent of your vagina. See a doctor for help with telling the difference between an infection and menopause symptoms, so you can work out what the best treatment will be.

How to make your vagina smell good

Vaginas aren’t meant to smell like flowers. But if you notice your smell has changed or is particularly strong, speak to your doctor because you may need treatment for an underlying infection.

Some simple hygiene steps should be enough to

keep your vagina clean and healthy
. Your vagina cleans itself – the fluid inside it is slightly acidic to protect it from harmful bacteria and keep it clean, moist and supple.

Although you shouldn't wash inside your vagina, it’s a good idea to wash the area around the outside every day. Use warm water and plain, unperfumed soap to gently wash the folds around your lips and the area between your vulva and anus.

Other self-care measures for keeping your vagina healthy include:

  • always protect yourself from infections by practicing
    safe sex
  • do
    Kegel
    exercises to help strengthen your pelvic floor muscles
  • wear breathable cotton underwear – excess moisture around your genital area can increase bacterial levels, which can result in infections
  • avoid vaginal douches or using scented wipes and vaginal deodorants, which can affect your vagina’s healthy natural balance

Read our

7 need-to-knows to help keep your vagina healthy.

Can the smell of your vagina enhance sexual arousal?

Your vaginal secretions help keep your vagina healthy – but did you know that their smell can also be arousing? Vaginal fluids contain chemicals, known as pheromones, which may make you attractive to potential partners. [43][43a]

In fact, some people swear by ‘vabbing’ (short for vaginal dabbing). You may have come across this on social media, although it hasn’t been scientifically proven. It involves dabbing your own vaginal fluids on your wrists and behind your ears, just like perfume. But the jury’s still out on whether it’s worth a go.

Your health questions answered

Why does my vagina taste bad?

Ever been told your vagina tastes sweet or sour, bitter or acidic, metallic or sharp by a partner? Each body is unique and your vagina may have its own unique smell and taste. It’s also possible your partner has unrealistic ideas about how a vagina should smell - so think about showing them this article. The main thing to remember is if you notice an unpleasant smell or taste that’s different to what’s normal for you, see your doctor to be checked for infections like BV and trichomoniasis. Once After treatment, the taste should go back to your usual. It's also important to keep your vagina healthy so follow our self-care tips above.

Watch this space

Some studies have looked into whether you can actually change the taste of your vagina through diet. So far, a few small trials have found that

probiotics
may help by keeping the vaginal microflora balanced.

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.