Vaginal Odor

All vaginas have an odor, including healthy ones. Hormones, sweat, normal bacteria, the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, sex, and even daily habits like what you eat and wear can all influence healthy vaginal odor.

Vaginal odor doesn't necessarily mean something is wrong. But if the smell is strong, unpleasant, or accompanied by other symptoms, it may be a sign of a problem, such as an infection.

This article will discuss common vaginal odors, when to see a healthcare provider, and how to treat vaginal odor if necessary.

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Symptoms of Vaginal Odor

First, it's important to note that the presence of an odor in the vaginal and vulva area is normal.

Some common odors that are usually nothing to worry about include:

  • Tangy, fermented, or sour: Normal bacterial activity that helps maintain vaginal pH levels (acid/base balance) can result in these odors.
  • Metallic or coppery: This can be due to blood from menstruation, small cuts or scrapes during sex, or contact with semen.
  • Bittersweet, like tangy gingerbread or molasses: Normal bacteria may be in flux, and the pH balance may be a bit off.
  • Bleach or chemical: It could be a small amount of urine in your underwear or around your vulva. (It could also be a sign of bacterial infection, so don't automatically discount it.)
  • Slightly sweet: Normal bacteria can cause a slightly sweet smell, but if it is very sweet or accompanied by other symptoms, it could indicate a yeast infection.
  • Body odor, or "armpit" smell: This odor can be pungent, but it isn't worrisome. It's just sweat reacting with vaginal bacteria.

Some odors that may indicate a problem include:

  • Fishy (pungent and foul): This can mean an infection such as bacterial vaginosis (BV) or trichomoniasis (trich)
  • Rotten (like bad meat): It may be from a forgotten tampon or one that has been in too long

Regardless of a specific scent, a vaginal odor that is strong or accompanied by other symptoms such as abnormal discharge or bleeding should be evaluated by a healthcare provider.

Causes of Vaginal Odor

Several problems can lead to unpleasant vaginal odor. Three common ones are bacterial vaginosis, trichomoniasis, and yeast infection.

Bacterial vaginosis (BV): This is a bacterial infection caused by an overgrowth of certain vaginal bacteria

Many people with BV don't have symptoms, but some experience symptoms such as:

Trichomoniasis (trich): This is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a parasite.

Trich does not always have noticeable symptoms, but possible symptoms include:

  • Fishy vaginal odor
  • Clear, white, yellowish, or greenish vaginal discharge (may be frothy)
  • Itching, burning, redness, or soreness in the genital area
  • Discomfort with urination and/or sex

Yeast infection: This is a fungal infection of the vagina and/or vulva.

Symptoms of a yeast infection can include:

  • A sweeter, beer-like vaginal odor
  • Thicker, "clumpy" vaginal discharge (may resemble cottage cheese)
  • Itching, irritation, or rawness

What Medications Can Cause Vaginal Odor?

Antibiotics can increase the likelihood of developing a yeast infection or BV. Corticosteroid medicines can also increase the chance of a yeast infection.

Ditch the Douche

Some people turn to douching (squirting water or other mixtures of fluids such as vinegar into the vagina) thinking it can help or prevent vaginal odors. The opposite is true. Douching upsets the balance of the bacteria in the vagina, which can lead to infection or irritation, increasing the chances of unpleasant vaginal odors.

If there is a vaginal infection already present, douching can cause the infection to spread up into the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries, possibly leading to a serious health condition called pelvic inflammatory disease.

How to Treat Vaginal Odor

If the odor is caused by a medical condition, the condition itself needs to be treated.

For example:

  • Bacterial vaginosis is treated with oral or topical (applied in the vagina) antibiotics.
  • Trichomoniasis is treated with oral antibiotics.
  • Yeast infections are treated with antifungal medications. Options include oral medication or a cream or suppository inserted into the vagina.

Measures you can take to try to reduce the potency of normal vaginal odors and help prevent infection include:

  • Wash your vulva gently with warm water only (no need to use soap, but if you do, use a mild, unscented kind, never scented or antibacterial).
  • Avoid scented products in the vulva/vaginal area, such as powders, perfumes, scented menstrual products, or deodorant.
  • Do not douche.
  • Wear breathable clothes, especially underwear, such as cotton (avoid Lycra and spandex undergarments and yoga pants).
  • Avoid tight-fitting clothes.
  • Consider wearing no underwear while sleeping.
  • Change out of wet or damp undergarments as soon as possible.
  • Shower after swimming in a chlorinated pool, lake, or river.
  • Only use panty liners or pads when absolutely necessary (they trap moisture against the skin).
  • Stay well-hydrated.
  • If having penis-in-vagina sex, use a condom and unscented, non-flavored lubricants.
  • Consume probiotics (such as in yogurt) to help keep vaginal pH levels balanced.

Complications Associated With Vaginal Odor

If the vaginal odor is caused by an infection, it's important to get treatment promptly.

BV and trich can lead to:

  • Increased likelihood of getting or transmitting STIs, including HIV
  • If during pregnancy, premature birth or low birth weight

Bacteria caused by an STI (and sometimes by normal vaginal bacteria) can lead to a serious infection of the reproductive organs (uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and cervix) called pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).

Some people with PID show no symptoms, while others have symptoms that range from mild to serious. Symptoms include:

  • Pain in the lower abdomen (most common symptom)
  • Fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
  • Vaginal discharge (may smell foul)
  • Pain during sex
  • Pain when urinating
  • Irregular menstrual periods
  • Pain in the upper right abdomen (rare)

PID can develop quickly, with extreme pain and fever. Without treatment, PID can lead to problems such as:

If you have signs of PID, see a healthcare provider as soon as possible.

Are There Tests to Diagnose the Cause of Vaginal Odor?

To determine the cause of the vaginal odor, a healthcare provider may:

  • Discuss your medical history
  • Ask about your symptoms
  • Perform a pelvic exam
  • Look for vaginal discharge, including its color, qualities, and odor
  • Run a test of the vaginal fluid
  • Run other laboratory tests

When to See a Healthcare Provider for Vaginal Odor

Contact a healthcare provider if you are experiencing:

  • Vaginal discharge that smells bad
  • Fever
  • Itching, burning, redness, rash, or swelling around the vagina/vulva
  • Thick, white, or yellowish-green discharge, or discharge that is an unusual color or consistency
  • Pain when urinating
  • Pain or discomfort during sex
  • Bleeding not associated with your period


Some degree of vaginal odor is normal. A vaginal odor that is particularly strong or foul, such as a fishy smell, may indicate a problem, such as an infection. Bacterial vaginosis, trich, or yeast infections are common causes of unpleasant vaginal odor.

Talk to a healthcare provider if you are experiencing an odor that is new, unpleasant, or accompanied by other symptoms.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What can make vaginal odor worse?

    Sometimes doing things to "help" vaginal odor can cause odor or make it worse by disrupting the balance of natural vaginal bacteria.


    • Using scented or harsh products in the vaginal/vulva area
    • Douching
    • Using irritating soaps, such as scented or antibacterial
    • Overwashing or scrubbing the vagina/vulva
  • Is all vaginal odor bad?

    No. All vaginas have odor caused by normal bacteria, sweat glands, hormones, and more. Though some odors may indicate a problem (such as a fishy smell), the general presence of an odor does not necessarily mean something is wrong.

  • How can I get rid of unwanted vaginal odor?

    First, you need to determine if what you are smelling is a normal vaginal odor or a sign of a problem. If the odor is caused by a condition, such as an infection, you need to treat the underlying cause.

    If the odor is simply how your vagina naturally smells, you don't need to do anything at all.

    Some things you can try to keep your vagina in balance include gently washing your vulva with water only (or gentle, unscented soap), wearing breathable clothing, and using a condom for penis-in-vagina sex.

11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Moreland OB-GYN. Vaginal odor: what is normal?

  2. University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Vaginal odor: what’s normal and what’s not.

  3. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Vulvovaginal health.

  4. Women's Medical Associates of Nashville. Common vaginal odors.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Trichomoniasis – CDC basic fact sheet.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bacterial vaginosis – CDC basic fact sheet.

  7. MedlinePlus. Vaginitis.

  8. Office on Women's Health. Douching.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bacterial vaginosis.

  10. MedlinePlus. Vaginal yeast infection.

  11. Office on Women's Health. Pelvic inflammatory disease.

By Heather Jones
Heather M. Jones is a freelance writer with a strong focus on health, parenting, disability, and feminism.