A guide on vaginal odors (and what they indicate)

By Maya Khamala

Fact: vaginas are meant to smell like…you guessed it, vaginas. 

So in spite of that horrendous comment made by your even more horrendous ex, and/or that horribly misguided douching ad, your vagina is supposed to have a signature scent of sorts, and it tends to change throughout your menstrual cycle. The vagina, like the gut, is teaming up with different bacteria and yeast, many of which play a positive role in our health.

And yet, as Louisa Leontiades gets at in her article for Jezebel, My Vagina Smells Like Shame: “I had a friend in university who grew a mustache because he liked going down on women and retaining their scent the day after in the hairs beneath his nostrils… I used to see him in my quantitative methods class stroking his mustache upwards and winking at me. He gloried in the smell of pussy. But when I was growing up, he was one of the few who did.” 

Uninitiated men (boys) aside, there are of course some vaginal scents that can indicate something amiss. Keep in mind that every poom is different, however. As a rough guide, here are 6 vaginal odors and what they might mean for your vagina’s general status in the universe of things:

1. Sweet 

Most of us have heard the rumors that one’s diet could affect the taste and scent of your vagina. Anecdotal evidence suggests that foods like watermelon, apple, celery, citrus fruits, pineapple, and grapefruit can sweeten the smell and taste of vaginal fluids. On the other hand, onions, garlic, broccoli, and asparagus can cause what some describe as “unpleasant." Ultimately, to each their own. That said, yeast can also sometimes cause a sweet odor, so if you’re also having symptoms of a yeast infection (see #4), be sure to address it. 

2. Metallic

When your uterine lining exits your vagina during your period, it can give off a unique smell, but it's not unhealthy. Menstrual blood can change your pH, causing a coppery or tinny scent—even post period. You can wash your vulva, but avoid strong scented soaps because they can throw your pH off. Other than that, this scent is inherently cyclical, so it won’t last.

3. Fishy

Ah, the infamous fishy vag. The most likely culprit? Bacterial vaginosis (BV). Sometimes accompanied by white, grey, or green discharge, this is an infection that occurs when your pH gets usurped by an overgrowth of "bad" bacteria. BV is typically not dangerous, and you may even be able to rebalance your vaginal acidity with over-the-counter pH gel. As well, some at-home remedies like apple cider vinegar or garlic have been known to do the trick. If all else fails, see your doctor for an antibiotic (opt for the insertable cream rather than orally administered pills so as not to cause a yeast infection in its stead). Note: if you see green discharge along with itching, and pain when peeing, you may actually have trichomoniasis, a common and easily treatable STI which also requires a trip to the doc and some antibiotics.

4. Yeasty

While a small amount of yeast typically takes residence inside your vagina even at the best of times, yeast infections happen when lubricants, spermicides, antibiotic use, or even pregnancy enable the fungi to overgrow. Most yeast infections don’t smell bad per se, but sometimes the cottage cheese-like discharge yeasties are famous for does have the faint scent of beer—or yeast. If you notice redness or burning, or pain after you pee along with said discharge, you’re likely in the yeast department. There are a myriad of over-the-counter treatments available. Always best to see your doc if you’re unsure what the issue actually is, however. And here are some tried and true DIY ways to keep yeast infections at bay when OTC treatments don’t do it (or as a viable alternative).

5. Bleach

Lubricants or condoms can contribute to a “bleachy” or chlorine-like smell. Simply go for unscented lubes in the future if this doesn’t sit well with you. If it ain’t condoms or lube, other bleachy-causing culprits include: BV, which can at times smell like ammonia rather than fish; your urine if you’re particularly dehydrated; and the low-acid pH level of sperm post intercourse. If it doesn’t fade on its own, your doc should know what’s up.

6. Straight-up bad

If your current scent can only be described as bad and you've also got a high fever, pain in your lower abdomen, and are having painful sex, you could have pelvic inflammatory disease, caused by STIs like gonorrhea and chlamydia (when the sketchy bacteria migrate from the vagina or cervix into the uterus and other reproductive organs. This should not be taken lightly, as it can cause infertility and/or chronic pain if left untreated—but it's typically killed by antibiotics. Call your doc ASAP if you feel any symptoms. Of all the vaginal scents in the rainbow, this is definitely the most concerning.

Bottom line: most smells our vaginas emit are normal or easily treatable/alterable. The greatest trick of all is to love and accept yourself more and stop letting misogynist scent standards (that’s right) proliferate, as they can smell quite rancid when left unchecked!

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