Understanding Changes in Vaginal Odor

Although a healthy vagina has a scent, which may change or get stronger during sexual arousal, it should not have an unpleasant smell. A strong or foul vaginal odor or a change in vaginal odor may be signs that you have an infection. Several vaginal infections, both sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and sexually associated infections, can affect vaginal odor.

If the smell of your vagina has changed or become unpleasant, or if you have a change in your vaginal discharge, it's a good idea to call your healthcare provider. A doctor can determine whether you have an infection that needs to be treated, or if the change in the way your vagina smells is just a reflection of other changes in your life, such as diet or hormonal shifts.

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Infections Causing Vaginal Odor Changes

These infections may cause a change in vaginal odor.

Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)

The infection most associated with a change in vaginal smell is bacterial vaginosis. Bacterial vaginosis results from an overgrowth of bacteria usually found in the vagina that throws off the natural balance. BV is not necessarily an STI, although it is associated with sexual behavior and can be sexually transmitted in women who have sex with women.

One of the main symptoms of BV is a strong, fishy odor that is particularly prominent after penile-vaginal sex. The smell increases at that time because semen reduces the acidity of the vagina, and the chemical compounds that produce the smell are more noticeable at a higher pH.

Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis can also cause a change in vaginal odor, while males rarely have symptoms.

This infection is an STI caused by the Trichomonas vaginalis parasite. Women can develop a strong vaginal odor, along with itching or discomfort during sex or urination. Their vaginal discharge may also change in appearance, becoming frothy or shifting in color.

Yeast Infection

Yeast infections are fungal infections causing irritation in the vulva and vagina, as well as changes in vaginal odor. Yeast infections are not sexually transmitted and, although they are sometimes associated with sex, some people are prone to them for other reasons.

For example, people with uncontrolled diabetes may be at higher risk of yeast infections because yeast likes to feed on the excess sugar in their urine.

Other Causes

Vaginal odor changes can also be a symptom of other sexually transmitted infections and reproductive conditions, particularly if those conditions are severe and/or accompanied by a discharge. However, most of the time, a shift in vaginal odor is caused by conditions that are relatively straightforward to diagnose and treat.

That doesn't mean that getting appropriate care is any less important. Left untreated, bacterial vaginosis, for example, can potentially leave you vulnerable to more serious infections. This includes pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which is caused when bacteria spread from your vagina to your uterus, which can affect fertility.

Avoid Vaginal Deodorants and Douches

If you've noticed that your vagina smells different, you may be tempted to address the problem by using a vaginal deodorant or vaginal douche. But this is a bad idea. A strange or unpleasant vaginal smell is your body's way of telling you that something is wrong and that you need to visit a healthcare provider.

Masking the odor doesn't fix the problem that is causing it, and the products you use to do so may make an infection worse.

Douching, in fact, can cause harm if you have a vaginal infection. There has been some research that suggests douching when you have an infection can increase the risk of it traveling to your uterus and causing PID.

In addition, douching can alter the normal vaginal flora, which may predispose you to developing conditions such as BV. Therefore, unless a medicinal douche has been prescribed to you by a healthcare provider, douching is probably not the best choice you can make for addressing vaginal odor or improving your reproductive health.

Again, the best thing to do if you're concerned about a change in your vaginal odor is to call your practitioner.

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4 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. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. STD facts - bacterial vaginosis. Feb 8, 2017.

  2. STD Facts - Trichomoniasis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Jan 31, 2017.

  3. Rodrigues CF, Rodrigues ME, Henriques M. Candida sp. Infections in patients with diabetes mellitus. J Clin Med. 2019;8(1) doi:10.3390/jcm8010076

  4. Office of Women's Health Pelvic inflammatory disease. Apr 1, 2019.