Vaginal odor: Is it normal?

    Updated 31 January 2024 |
    Published 30 August 2018
    Fact Checked
    Medically reviewed by Dr. Jenna Flanagan, Academic generalist obstetrician and gynecologist, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Massachusetts, US
    Written by Ella Braidwood
    Flo Fact-Checking Standards

    Every piece of content at Flo Health adheres to the highest editorial standards for language, style, and medical accuracy. To learn what we do to deliver the best health and lifestyle insights to you, check out our content review principles.

    All vaginas are unique, and it’s natural for yours to have a scent. Here’s what causes vaginal odor and when you should speak to your doctor.

    Does my vagina smell normal? It’s one of those questions we’ve probably all thought about at some point. And as the “feminine hygiene” industry might want you to believe that your vulva should smell like cotton candy or a strawberry sundae, this may leave you feeling a little self-conscious. That’s understandable. 

    But the thing is, healthy vaginas are supposed to smell like a part of the human body. And they can all smell slightly different from person to person. It’s natural if yours has a mild smell.

    Still, it’s nice to have some reassurance, especially given how little the topic is discussed. Plus, an unusual odor (think strong or fishy) might be a sign that something’s amiss. Read on to find out exactly what vaginal odor is and when to see a doctor.

    Understand your body better by tracking your cycle with Flo

    Key takeaways 

    Vaginal smell: Is it normal?

    Before we get into the details of vaginal odors, a quick note: You’ll read vagina and vulva used throughout this piece and may wonder if they’re the same thing. Often these two terms are used interchangeably, but this isn’t accurate. 

    The part of your genitals that you can see on the outside is your vulva. Your vagina is inside your body. It’s a muscular tube that attaches your vulva to your cervix. Check out this article on anatomy with diagrams for more information. When we talk about “vaginal smells,” we mean scents coming from your vulval region.

    Remember that it’s completely normal for a healthy vagina to have a mild smell. The exact smell will depend on what you naturally smell like, where you are in your menstrual cycle, and other factors, like whether you’ve had sex lately or have been working out. Yours may smell: 

    • Slightly sour or tangy
    • Slightly sweet 
    • Slightly metallic — like copper — when you’re on your period (This is because your blood has iron in it.) 

    The smell of your vagina is often related to its pH balance and how acidic it is. You might not have thought about pH levels since chemistry class, but they influence the health of your vagina. 

    Here’s how: There are lots of different “good” bacteria that live in your vagina. They make up what’s known as your vaginal flora. Bacteria is often seen as a negative thing, but your vaginal flora plays a crucial role in protecting you against infection. Amazingly, your vagina is self-cleaning, and your vaginal flora plays a key part in keeping yours healthy.  

    It also keeps your vagina at the right pH level — around 3.8 to 4.2. This means a healthy vagina is naturally slightly acidic. The acidity of your vagina helps keep levels of yeast and bacteria in balance. It’s this that causes the mild smell. 

    Do all vaginas smell different?

    We’re all different — and so are our vaginas. The way your vagina smells is pretty unique to you, and it can change throughout your cycle and in response to sex, exercise, and major lifestyle changes. Here’s why:

    Your vagina may smell slightly metallic during your period. This is because your period blood contains iron. And because your hormones fluctuate during pregnancy, expecting a baby can impact your vagina’s pH levels too, causing new smells. 

    You might notice a slight change in the way your vulva smells after you’ve worked out. This is because there are a lot of sweat glands in your groin. Anything that affects your general body odor, like an intense workout or stress, can also affect the smell around your vulva. “This odor is different from vaginal odor, but can mimic vaginal odor due to the proximity to the vagina,” explains Dr. Renita White, an obstetrician and gynecologist from Georgia, US, who sits on Flo’s medical board. 

    Similarly, the smell of your vagina may change in response to sex, as semen has a different pH from your vagina.

    What could abnormal or unpleasant vaginal odor indicate? 

    Since everyone’s vaginas can smell slightly different, it’s handy to get used to what’s normal for you. A mild scent can indicate that everything is normal, but an overpowering or unpleasant vaginal smell can indicate a condition that needs attention. 

    This may sound scary, but as Dr. White explains, “Though a new foul odor may indicate a problem, it is usually treated, and it is very common for this to happen. There is no reason to be embarrassed or ashamed.”

    These are the most common reasons for an unpleasant vaginal odor:

    Bacterial vaginosis 

    Vaginal discharge with a strong, fishy smell can be a sign of bacterial vaginosis (BV). You may notice this fishy smell, particularly after having sex. BV can also cause irritation, a burning sensation when you pee, and a thin, whitish-gray discharge

    It’s caused by a change in the natural balance of bacteria in your vagina. This can happen if you wash using heavily scented soap. BV isn’t a sexually transmitted infection (STI), but having sex without a condom can increase your risk of getting BV. Book an appointment with your doctor if you think you might have symptoms. It’s easily treated with antibiotics.

    Sexually transmitted infections 

    A fishy smell from your vagina can also be a sign of an STI, including gonorrhea, chlamydia, or trichomoniasis. You might have also noticed a change in the way your discharge looks

    If your discharge appears yellowish or green, is lumpy, or has a very strong smell, then call your health care provider for an STI checkup. This might sound daunting, but STI tests are very quick and mostly painless. Your doctor will then be able to prescribe the right course of treatment. 

    If left unchecked, STIs can get worse, and your symptoms may become more severe as time goes on. You may develop other conditions, such as pelvic inflammatory disease, or you could develop complications if you try to get pregnant in the future. So, it’s really important that you see your health care provider if you notice any of the symptoms associated with an STI. 

    Urinary tract infection 

    If your urine is smellier than usual (remember, urine does smell), it could be a sign of a urinary tract infection (UTI). 

    UTIs don’t always cause symptoms, but speak to your health care provider if your urine has a strong smell and looks cloudy, you experience a strong urge to pee that doesn’t go away after using the bathroom, it burns when you pee, and/or you have abdominal pain. Most UTIs are easily treated with antibiotics.

    Pelvic inflammatory disease

    Another reason you might notice a change in the way your vagina smells is due to an infection known as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)

    PID isn’t an STI, but it can develop if an STI is left untreated and spreads to your uterus, ovaries, and uterine tubes. This can lead to long-term problems like infertility. While PID doesn’t always have symptoms, it can also cause bleeding between periods, unusual discharge, and pain during sex, so be sure to get any of these symptoms checked out by your doctor.

    If you’ve left a tampon in for too long 

    When your period arrives, it can be really easy to pop a tampon in and go about the rest of your day. So easy that time can get away from you — and suddenly it’s been in for longer than the recommended eight hours. Generally speaking, this isn’t too much to worry about. However, it can start to smell. 

    If you use tampons, you’ve likely heard horror stories about toxic shock syndrome (TSS). TSS is caused by bacteria that produce toxins. As your vagina is a warm and moist environment, it’s really easy for this bacteria to grow. It can happen if you leave a tampon in for too long. 

    TSS can cause nausea and vomiting, a fever, and muscle aches and can be life threatening. This may sound scary, but TSS is incredibly rare. Only around 1 to 3 people in every 100,000 will experience it. That said, it’s very important to get medical help immediately if you have any symptoms.

    How to clean your vagina and vulva 

    So what can you do to keep your vaginal smell in balance? While it’s normal for your vagina to have a mild smell, there are some things you can do to feel fresh. Remember, incredibly, vaginas are self-cleaning, which means you don’t have to do a lot to maintain its balance. In fact, strong soaps and detergents can cause more harm than good. And there are some hints and tips you can follow to take care of your vulva: 

    • Use water on its own or a mild soap. Your vulva is a sensitive area, and using harsh, perfumed soaps can lead to irritation. Plain, unperfumed soap or just water is best. They may smell good, but perfumed products can change your vagina’s pH levels and could cause an infection. 
    • For similar reasons, you don’t need to douche or spray water into your vagina. 
    • Wearing loose-fitting, cotton underwear. Cotton is breathable and soft, so it won’t rub against or irritate the skin around your vulva. 
    • Change out of sweaty workout gear as soon as possible. Sweat around your groin can change the way your vulva smells. 
    • When you’re on your period, change your pad or tampon every four to eight hours to avoid the buildup of bacteria. 
    • When you go to the bathroom, always wipe from front to back

    Take a quiz

    Find out what you can do with our Health Assistant

    When to see your doctor and what to say 

    Whatever your vagina smells like, there is no need to be embarrassed or ashamed. Get to know your vagina and what’s normal for you at different times in your menstrual cycle. 

    About a third of the time, abnormal vaginal odor goes away without treatment, as your vagina is self-cleaning and the body regulates its own bacteria. However, if you’ve noticed a new and unpleasant smell, and you’re not sure what’s caused it, seek advice from your doctor. They may ask you to come in for an appointment so they can examine you, talk through any other symptoms you might be having, and figure out what might have triggered the smell. 

    More FAQs

    Does shaving pubic hair reduce odor?

    Grow it long or cut it off — it’s completely your choice whether to shave your pubic hair — but shaving isn’t proven to reduce vulval smells. “Removing pubic hair can increase the risk of sweating, which can lead to odor from the sweat glands,” explains Dr. White.

    Can you smell a yeast infection through clothes?

    Yeast infections can be itchy and uncomfortable, but Dr. White says, “Typically, yeast infections are not associated with an odor. It generally causes a change in vaginal discharge as well as vaginal itching or irritation.”

    Does fishy odor go away by itself?

    Generally speaking, a fishy vaginal odor is a sign of a condition like BV. It’s really important to speak to your health care provider if you notice a strong or unpleasant smell from your vagina. They will be able to best advise you on the medication that will help you get rid of the infection.

    References

    “Bacterial Vaginosis.” Cleveland Clinic, my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/3963-bacterial-vaginosis. Accessed 29 Jan. 2024.

    “Cervix.” Cleveland Clinic, my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/23279-cervix. Accessed 29 Jan. 2024.

    Haugen, T. B., and T. Grotmol. “PH of Human Semen.” International Journal of Andrology, vol. 21, no. 2, Apr. 1998, pp. 105–08, https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2605.1998.00108.x.

    Hodge, Bonnie D., et al. “Anatomy, Skin Sweat Glands.” StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing, 10 Oct. 2022, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482278/.

    Lin, Yen-Pin, et al. “Vaginal pH Value for Clinical Diagnosis and Treatment of Common Vaginitis.” Diagnostics, vol. 11, no. 11, Oct. 2021, https://doi.org/10.3390/diagnostics11111996

    “Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID).” Mayo Clinic, 30 Apr. 2022, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pelvic-inflammatory-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20352594

    Brusch, John L. “Prevention of Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) in Women.” MedScape, 1 Apr. 2021, emedicine.medscape.com/article/1958794-overview

    “Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) Symptoms.” Mayo Clinic, 5 May 2022, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sexually-transmitted-diseases-stds/in-depth/std-symptoms/art-20047081

    Solomons, Edward, and Gerald C. Dockeray. “Vaginal Discharges.” Irish Journal of Medical Science, vol. 11, no. 8, Aug. 1936, pp. 548–51, link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF02957053.

    Soper, D. E. “Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID).” Infectious Diseases in Obstetrics and Gynecology, vol. 4, no. 2, 1996, p. 62. 

    “Toxic Shock Syndrome.” Cleveland Clinic, my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15437-toxic-shock-syndrome. Accessed 29 Jan. 2024. 

    “Understanding the Stress Response.” Harvard Health Publishing, 6 July 2020, www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response

    “Urinary Tract Infection (UTI).” Mayo Clinic, 14 Sep. 2022, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/urinary-tract-infection/symptoms-causes/syc-20353447

    “Vagina.” Cleveland Clinic, my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/22469-vagina. Accessed 29 Jan. 2024.

    “Vaginal Odor.” Mayo Clinic, 25 Feb. 2022, www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/vaginal-odor/basics/when-to-see-doctor/sym-20050664

    “Vaginal Odor.” Cleveland Clinic, my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/17905-vaginal-odor. Accessed 29 Jan. 2024.

    “Vaginitis.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Sep. 2023, www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/vaginitis

    “Vaginitis.” Mayo Clinic, 22 Dec. 2021, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/vaginitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20354707

    “Vulvovaginal Health.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Jan. 2020, www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/vulvovaginal-health

    “What Happens If You Leave a Tampon in Too Long?” Cleveland Clinic, 9 Sep. 2022, health.clevelandclinic.org/what-happens-if-you-leave-a-tampon-in-too-long

    “Yeast Infection (Vaginal).” Mayo Clinic, 11 Jan. 2023, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/yeast-infection/symptoms-causes/syc-20378999

    “You Don’t Need Fancy Products for Good Feminine Hygiene.” Mayo Clinic Health System, 2 Nov. 2016, www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/you-dont-need-fancy-products-for-good-feminine-hygiene

    History of updates

    Current version (31 January 2024)

    Medically reviewed by Dr. Jenna Flanagan, Academic generalist obstetrician and gynecologist, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Massachusetts, US
    Written by Ella Braidwood

    Published (30 August 2018)

    In this article

      Try Flo today

      Sign up for our newsletter

      Our latest articles and news straight to your inbox.

      Thanks for signing up

      We're testing right now so not collecting email addresses, but hoping to add this feature very soon.