Vaginal Odor: What’s Normal, What’s Not?
This article was written for AwesomeWoman.com
There’s something fishy about the medical term “vaginal flora” as a synonym for the vaginal microbiome. Haven’t met a woman yet who smells like a fresh bouquet of flowers down there. Earthy, maybe. Musky, for sure. But there’s nothing floral about vaginal aroma.
And that’s completely normal.
Just like us, our vaginal microbiomes are complex, beautiful, blossoming, and unique with more important things to do than worry about smelling like roses.
So what’s up with the smell down there?
Before we really dive in deep, we want to say, ditch the douche. Your vulva and vagina are powerful. They are built to fight off infections and defend against cancers—they know how to keep bacteria and yeast in check. Your vagina is self-cleaning with the power to ward off unhealthy bacteria and maintain ideal pH levels. Douching, deep cleaning with scented soap, or applying perfumy products only disrupts the natural order of things.
That being said, when there is a problem, your vagina wants to be heard, just like you do. Unusual smells are one way of getting your full attention.
So, What’s a Normal Smell?
Because the vagina is self-cleaning, discharge that smells slightly musky is 100% normal. It’s also normal for your discharge and odor to change throughout your menstrual cycle. Other times you can expect changes in smell:
after a sweaty workout
when your hormones are in flux
Tip: Be mindful of your vaginal discharge and odors. Once you smell, feel, and know what’s normal for your body, you can quickly detect what’s not.
So, What’s NOT Normal?
Really strong, unpleasant odors, often accompanied by intense itching and a fiery burn, are signs it’s time for treatment. If your odor comes with other pain, bleeding during sex, or a fever, ring the alarm—it’s definitely time to call your doctor or quickly grab a telehealth appointment with an Awesome Woman provider.
What Can Cause Abnormal Smells?
Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)
Fishy smell?* Grayish white discharge and maybe some itching or inflammation? It’s probably BV, the most common vaginal infection for women ages 15 to 44 who are sexually active. BV is when certain bacteria overload your vagina’s natural balance and can be treated with antibiotics, if you’re having symptoms.
*Note: Up to 85% of BV cases are asymptomatic, meaning there’s no noticeable smell. A microbiome test and vaginal pH test can help detect vaginal imbalance and asymptomatic BV.
Aerobic Vaginitis (AV)
Rotten, foul smelling vaginal odor? Yellowish discharge and intense itching, burning and inflammation? It could be AV, which is similar to BV but doesn’t respond to the same antibiotics. A telehealth visit with one of our providers can get you hooked up with the right medication for the type of infection you’re dealing with.
Unusual amount of discharge, strong fishy odor, and recent unprotected sex? It could be the STI trichomoniasis, which can be treated with a course of antibiotics.
It might surprise you, but one of the most common causes of strong vaginal odor is a forgotten tampon. Remember to change every 4 - 8 hours, even if your flow is light. Although rare, a forgotten tampon can lead to a serious infection called pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
Sex and Sweat
As for the changes in smell you might notice after sex (mild fishiness) or after a workout (stronger than usual musk), those are usually not signs of trouble. After showering and cleaning your vulva with plain water or a pH-balanced intimate wash, the vagina’s self-cleaning capabilities should take care of the rest.
Happy Vagina Practices
Other personal care tips we endorse:
Take a shower or change into clean clothes ASAP after a sweaty workout
Only use plain water or a pH-balanced intimate
cleanser for the skin outside your vagina, and never clean inside your vagina
Peeing after sex—this may help flush harmful bacteria from the urethra
Take a probiotic to support a healthy, balanced vaginal microbiome
Let it breathe—wear loose clothing and go commando whenever possible since tight underwear and clothes trap discharge, sweat, and dead skin, leading to infections and odors
H2O—drink plenty of water to prevent bacterial growth
Use laundry detergent, tampons, pads, and toilet paper that’s free to dyes and perfumes to prevent vaginal irritation
Remember, Awesome Woman premium subscriptions include telehealth visits with licensed providers and low-cost, convenient prescription delivery. These services can really come in handy if you’ve got an infection or if things are just smelling a bit funky and you’re not sure what to do.