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Vagina Smells 101: a guide to vaginal odor (and what it can indicate)

By Maya Khamala

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

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 and at the onset of menopause. The vagina, like the gut, is teeming up with different bacteria and yeast that 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, but as a rough guide, here are 6 vaginal smells, what they might mean for your vagina’s general status, and what causes vaginal odor:

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 might cause what some describe as “unpleasant."

But there is no scientific evidence to support these claims.

Your diet cannot affect your vagina in this way because that's not how the body works; the vagina is not a part of the digestive tract. That said, sweet odors can happen, and yeast might be the cause. 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, and never wash the inside of your vagina--it takes care of itself in that regard.

Other than that, this metallic scent is inherently cyclical, so it won’t last.

3. Fishy

Ah, the infamous fishy vaginal odor. The most likely culprit? Bacterial vaginosis (BV). BV is a bacterial imbalance in the vagina — the infection reduces the good lactic-acid producing bacteria, leading to an overgrowth of bad bacteria. This bad bacteria can sometimes result in a musky, fishy odor, particularly after having penis-in-vagina sex. The alkaline (AKA higher pH) semen interacts with the compounds the bacteria emit, making it more likely to smell something.

While it is sometimes accompanied by irritation and/or white, grey, or green discharge, many people will have no symptoms at all. If it is merely a case of wonky vaginal pH, you may 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, though there is no medical evidence to support that at this time.

BV is typically not dangerous on its own, but it’s important to treat it as it increases the risk of contracting STIs as well as pelvic inflammatory disease. If you have symptoms, 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 some yeast typically takes residence inside your vagina even at the best of times, yeast infections can happen when lubricants, spermicides, antibiotic use, or even pregnancy enable the fungi to overgrow. And sometimes, this overgrowth can causes irritation and foreign smells. 

Most yeast infections don’t smell bad per se, but when odor des occur, they are famous for having 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, the vaginal suppositories being the most effective. That said, it's always best to see your doc if you’re unsure what the issue actually is, as the majority of people who self-diagnose don't actually have an infection.

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 isn'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 doens'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've either got a foreign object (most commonly a forgotten tampon) in there or 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 show 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 easy to get rid when properly treated. 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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