Body odor is normal and, to some extent, so are vaginal odors.
Vaginal scents can change due to bacteria, hormones, pH levels, and more.
But what if you’re worried about the smell being a sign of something else?
In this article, I’ll cover the common causes of vaginal odors, what different smells might be indicating, how to prevent vaginal odor, and when to speak with a healthcare provider.
Vaginal Odor Causes
Regular vaginal odor is due to sweat from the sweat glands found in and around the vagina and groin area.
The natural smell comes from the sweat mixing with the healthy bacteria found in the same area.
Those who sweat more heavily might notice a smell more often.
However, sometimes a more noticeable vaginal odor can indicate that something is wrong.
Here are some of the most common reasons for new or unpleasant vaginal odor.
Trichomoniasis, nicknamed “trich,” is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a parasite named Trichomoniasis vaginalis.
Some cases are asymptomatic, meaning you might not know you have it until you are tested for STIs.
For those that do develop symptoms, a fishy smell is commonly reported.
Other symptoms that indicate trichomoniasis include:
- Itching, pain, or burning during urination
- A change in vaginal discharge (thinner, thicker, green-yellow)
- A fishy vaginal odor
- Itching, burning, or soreness around the genital area
Trichomoniasis is treated with prescription medication after a diagnosis.
A yeast infection is a common infection caused by an overgrowth of the fungus candida.
One sign of a yeast infection is a thick white vaginal discharge which may or may not be accompanied by unusual vaginal odor.
These are other common symptoms of a yeast infection:
- Irritation, itching, pain, or a burning sensation around the vagina and vulva
- Itching or burning sensations when urinating
- Abnormal vaginal discharge, or cottage-cheese-like discharge
Yeast infections can be treated with an over-the-counter vaginal cream like miconazole (Monistat), or with prescribed antifungal medication.
Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)
A strong fish-like odor is one of the leading symptoms of BV, which is the result of an excess of the normal bacteria in the vagina.
BV is also considered the most common vaginal condition for people with vaginas ages 15-44.
Other commonly reported symptoms of BV can include:
- Thin white or gray discharge
- Irritation, itching, pain, or a burning sensation around the vagina and vulva
- Strong foul odors or a fishy smell, especially following sex
- Burning sensations when urinating
BV can sometimes be treated using home remedies.
Other treatments include prescribed oral or vaginal antibiotics, such as metronidazole (Flagyl), clindamycin (Cleocin), or tinidazole (Tindamax).
Although less likely, an item that has been forgotten in the vagina might be the cause of a foul smell coming from your vagina.
Examples of foreign bodies that can be left in the vagina include condoms, tampons, and other insertable vaginal products.
It’s recommended that you switch out tampons or other hygiene products at least every eight hours.
If there is any concern for a foreign body, a healthcare provider should be seen immediately.
Becoming pregnant begins a host of changes in the body, including your hormones.
This can lead to changes in vaginal odor that you might be different from what you’re used to.
A change in vaginal smell during pregnancy isn’t necessarily a bad sign but the vaginal smell should never be foul or fishy.
Watch out for other abnormal changes such as spotting and abdominal pain that can signal the need to reach out to your healthcare provider
Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)
A urinary tract infection (or UTI) is not a pleasant experience; common symptoms include pain, itching and irritation around the vulva and vagina and most often a burning sensation when urinating.
The infection in the urinary tract can cause urine to have a strong smell, which can result in you noticing the smell around your vagina and vulva even though it is not coming from the vagina itself.
If you have a UTI, you will want to see your healthcare provider, as UTIs are typically treated with prescribed antibiotics.
What Different Vaginal Odors May Mean
The following is a quick guide to what new or abnormal vaginal odors might be indicating:
- Fishy: A fishy vaginal odor can indicate bacterial vaginosis (BV). This infection occurs when there’s an overgrowth of the healthy bacteria in the vagina. Trichomoniasis (Trich) is a sexually transmitted infection that can also cause a fishy vaginal odor.
- Sweet, beer-like: A sweet or yeast-like odor that may smell like beer can indicate a yeast infection. Some patients also describe a vaginal odor that is a stronger version of their normal smell.
- Ammonia: This can indicate a urinary tract infection (UTI), especially if there are accompanying symptoms such as burning or pain with urination.
- Generally different: An overall change in vaginal odor that is not an offensive smell might be the result of hormonal changes.
An abnormal smell that doesn’t fit into the above categories should be evaluated by your healthcare provider.
Regardless of the change, if you suspect a foreign body in the vagina (such as a tampon), contact your healthcare provider.
Who Is at Risk for Vaginal Odors?
Anyone with a vagina can experience vaginal odors.
Certain behaviors increase your risk of having a vaginal odor, vaginal infections and/or sexually transmitted infections.
Those who sweat more may notice vaginal odors more often, as well as those who do not shower or clean themselves regularly.
Any case where you leave your genital area wet or damp for a longer period of time will also increase your risk of having a vaginal odor.
Those who engage in sexual intercourse or have multiple sexual partners are at a higher risk of contracting an STI, which also increases the risk for new or abnormal vaginal smells.
How to Prevent Vaginal Odor
Vaginal scents are natural, but sometimes they can cause embarrassment or insecurity.
Even if you use all of these tips, you may not completely eliminate natural smells.
To prevent vaginal odor, keep the vaginal area clean using products that do not contain perfumes or unnecessary chemicals as these products can disrupt the sensitive balance in the vagina area.
The best way to wash and clean your vagina and surrounding area is with plain warm water.
Vaginas keep themselves clean naturally, so additional cleaning products or soaps are not required for optimal health.
Other tips for preventing vaginal odor include:
- Wear cotton underwear or no underwear more often. Synthetic fibers can cause irritation and prevent sweat from being wicked away, increasing the likelihood for infections. Taking off your underwear for the night also gives your body a chance to breathe.
- Avoid using perfumes, powders, deodorant sprays, or other scented products. These increase your risk for vaginal infections and upset the balance of healthy bacteria in the area.
- Take off wet garments as soon as possible. Water is a breeding ground for bacteria, meaning you’re more likely to smell the longer you leave on a wet bathing suit or other wet clothing items.
When to See a Healthcare Provider
Some symptoms warrant a trip to the doctor’s office.
If you experience any of the following, contact healthcare provider as soon as you can:
- Blood in your vaginal discharge when not menstruating
- Abnormally colored or textured vaginal discharge
- Pain or burning when urinating
- Abdominal pain or pelvic pain
- Nausea, or vomiting
These might be symptoms of a complex vaginal infection that needs urgent diagnosis and treatment.
Don’t wait to get checked.
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
BACTERIAL VAGINOSIS (BV) (2017)
Bacterial Vaginosis – CDC Fact Sheet (2022)
Rectovaginal Fistula (2021)
The Facts on Tampons—and How to Use Them Safely (2020)
Trichomoniasis – CDC Fact Sheet (2021)
Vaginal Odor: What’s Normal and What’s Not (2022)
Vaginal and Vulvar Cancer (2019)