If you've ever worried that your pants are a little too smelly after a workout or got slightly self-conscious about how strong your vagina smells, just know that you're not alone. However, your scent is probably pretty typical, meaning there's no real smell if you're washing yourself regularly.
"Every woman has her own distinct smell, so it is important to pay attention to how your odor changes over time," said Dr. Nita Landry, an OB/GYN in Los Angeles and cohost known as "Dr. Nita" on the TV show The Doctors. If you start to notice you're smellier than usual, it could mean that something's going on.
Before freaking out, most of these strange causes are pretty harmless. You might feel gross, but you're actually safe and clean, and they're super treatable. "If your odor does become more pungent than usual, or if you experience an increased amount of vaginal discharge and you don't know why, call your healthcare provider. It could indicate elevated levels of bacteria or yeast, or possibly even a sexually transmitted infection," Dr. Nita said. Here are just some possible causes.
If you have a fishy smell down there, it could be a bacterial infection or vaginosis, Dr. Nita said. Luckily, they can be treated with an antibiotic.
"There might be excess vaginal discharge, fishy odor, vaginal burning, and maybe vaginal pain," she said. "But bacterial vaginosis, which is not sexually transmitted, is usually associated with a white vaginal discharge with or without vaginal irritation." Basically, an infection happens when the bacteria balance in the vagina is thrown off, and there's too much bad bacteria to overpower the good. And if this infection isn't bad enough, symptoms might worsen after having sex.
A yeast infection could also be the culprit for any scent. "Yeast infections, which can be treated with over-the-counter creams or a pill prescribed by your doctor, are often accompanied by a cottage-cheese-like discharge as well as vaginal itching, irritation, and/or redness," Dr. Nita said. "It'll smell like warm bread."(Eek! We know!) Nothing to worry about here, but you'll want to get rid of it stat.
"Yeast infections happen when there's an imbalance of usual bacteria in the vagina, and when that balance is off, the pH changes and the odor of vagina can occur," said Dr. Alyssa Dweck, MD, a gynecologist in New York City and author of The Complete A to Z For Your V.
Something Is Stuck in There
A lady's worst nightmare, right? Well, it can happen. If your vagina smells like rotten meat, it's a clue that "you probably forgot something in there," Dr. Nita said.
"Women often forget tampons in their vagina. That's dangerous because forgotten tampons can cause toxic shock syndrome, a life-threatening condition," she adds. A few more symptoms of toxic shock syndrome include a high fever, rash on palms and soles, redness around mouth and eyes, headaches, low blood pressure, and even vomiting or diarrhea.
If you think there is a foreign object, like a tampon or sex toy, in your vagina, and you can't remove it, call your doctor immediately. "Don't be embarrassed! We remove forgotten objects all the time," Dr. Nita said.
You're Using Condoms or Lube
Don't let some funky odors stop you from being safe or making sex more pleasurable for you. You might want to know, though, that it's perfectly normal to smell a bit after using condoms or lube, just so you can be prepared. The odor resembles chlorine or bleach.
"Your condoms or lubricants might be causing the odor; some people are more sensitive to certain ingredients," Dr. Dweck said. For instance, "some women are sensitive to glycerin in certain lubricants, which can create yeast," she said. "Other women might not like latex condoms, which have a distinct rubbery smell," she added.
Just a heads up, though, you might smell after sex, even when not using condoms or lube. "The exposure to semen can have an odor," Dr. Dweck said. "If you bleed during or after sex, it might smell metallic or iron-like, too," she said.
"You might just be sweating a little more than usual," Dr. Nita said. To avoid a musky smell, "Use some warm water to wash the outside of your vagina and in the crevices and folds," she suggested. "Also, during the day you should wear breathable underwear with a cotton liner. At night, consider ditching your underwear all together, as it lets the vagina breathe better," she added.
Sexually transmitted infections, like gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, and chlamydia, can also be associated with a vaginal odor similar to muskiness. For these, you'll want to look for other symptoms and see a doctor right away.
Depending on the STD, a few things might change. "Many cause vaginal discharge, which could be green or have an odor, might be irritating and itchy, might cause bleeding or irregular bleeding with intercourse, or might cause foul drainage that smells bad but doesn't have blood in it," she said.
For the three STDs above, though, "there will be a fishy odor," she said. For trichomoniasis, there might even be "bubbly frothy discharge, pain and difficulty with urination, pain or abnormal bleeding," Dr. Dweck said.
Be extra vigilant for gonorrhea and chlamydia, as "half the people have symptoms, like foul odor discharge, and half the people may have no symptoms at all," Dweck pointed out, which is why regular check-ups are a must.