Outside of medicine, the word ‘flora’ refers to flowers, plants, and evokes images of a naturally occurring ecosystem that gives us a breath of fresh air.
This, though, is not the case for the vaginal flora we refer to in medicine, and that is completely okay!
The vaginal flora harbors numerous bacteria and yeast that naturally make up our microbiome and maintain the healthy functions of our reproductive system.
You shouldn’t expect your vaginal discharge to smell like flowers, but sometimes it is hard to know what smells are normal and what are not.
While it’s common to notice a slight scent from vaginal secretions, sometimes odor changes are the first sign of infection.
By paying attention to what is normal for you and learning what odors indicate problems, you can be proactive about your health.
This article will explore the different types of scents and odors that may come from vaginal discharge, how to know what they mean, and when to seek medical care.
Types of Vaginal Discharge Smells and What They Mean
While there are many OTC products aimed at cleaning the vagina or improving odor, it is important to understand that it isn’t meant to smell like perfume, deodorants, or flowers.
It is also important to note that smells can change through time with hormone changes and aging.
The vagina hosts lots of beneficial bacteria, holds cervical fluid made from glands within, and even has its own sweat glands.
It has a delicately balanced system to prevent infection and promote normal vaginal secretions.
Vaginal infections can change the scent of discharge and may produce other symptoms, but outside of that, it is normal for vaginal discharge to have a variety of different smells.
Most of them are not a cause for concern and you should not try to clean all scents out of your vagina.
Here are the many scents that you may notice from your vaginal discharge.
The following can all be normal vaginal odors for people.
- Metallic: While you wouldn’t normally associate a copper-like scent with a healthy vagina, blood has a metallic scent due to the iron content. The vagina is rich in blood vessels and it may bleed easily based on penetration or irritation, along with normal menstrual flow. If a metallic smell ever occurs along with symptoms like itching or increased discharge, see a healthcare provider to rule out causes for abnormal uterine bleeding.
- Tangy:Your vagina hosts good bacteria which produce lactic acid and other substances that maintain the health of the vagina.. This causes a slightly tangy smell, much like a mild vinegar, pickle, or sauerkraut scent. This is normal and reflective of having good vaginal flora. The acidic nature of the vaginal canal protects against pathogenic bacteria and other infections.
- Earthy or sweet: The bacteria that colonize the vagina can also cause scents that are reminiscent of sweet, earthy soil or a molasses-like scent. This is not a cause for concern and is reflective of the normal bacterial flora.
- Body odor: The vagina has sweat glands, much like the armpits. During times of stress or physical activity, more sweat may build up in the vagina. When it mixes with the normal vaginal flora, it can create a body odor-like scent that, while unpleasant, is not harmful or abnormal. If the smell gets stronger, doesn’t go away, or is paired with any new symptoms or pain, speak to a healthcare provider.
Unhealthy Odors to Be Aware Of
While the above-mentioned smells can be normal under many circumstances, the following abnormal vaginal odors should always include a visit to your healthcare provider.
- Chemical smell: While there’s a perfectly normal reason for vaginal discharge to smell like ammonia, it’s not actually because of discharge at all. Urine is a waste product that tends to have an ammonia scent when it is stronger. If you think that your discharge smells like chemicals or ammonia, be sure that you are actually smelling discharge and not urine. If your discharge does truly have a chemical odor, see a healthcare provider. Vaginal discharge with a scent like this could indicate bacterial vaginosis or a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Usually, these include other symptoms, like burning during urination, discharge that may appear gray, green, or yellow, and itching.
- Fishy smell: The most common way to describe abnormal vaginal odors is that they smell “fishy.” The odor is caused by a compound that is present in vaginal infections and also rotting food. Bacterial vaginosis, trichomoniasis, or other STIs may be the most common causes of a rotting fish smell. A yeast infection may be at the root of a milder fishy smell. Vaginal discharge that is white, green, yellow, or gray typically accompanies vaginal infections, along with other symptoms like itching, burning, or pain. In some cases, a strong rotting smell may be due to something like a tampon that has been left in too long. If menstrual flow itself has a strong, rotting odor, it could be due to a uterine infection. Any signs of infection, including strong smells, should be reported to a healthcare provider.
How to Get Rid of Odors
If you have vaginal odor from an infection, treating the infection will also address the odor.
If you have vaginal odor from normal sweat gland production, it is possible to safely decrease vaginal odor without disrupting the balance of vaginal flora.
Trying to determine the cause of the smell will help guide treatment options.
It is important to know that doctors do not recommend douching.
While they sIt is important to know that doctors do not recommend douching.
While they still remain popular, OTC remedies for vaginal odor can disrupt the healthy vaginal flora and actually make it easier to get infections or STIs.
Safe ways to minimize unpleasant odors include:
- Showering and changing clothes right after exercise or physical activity
- Regularly wash the vaginal area with warm water and gentle soap
- Wear condoms during sexual activity to prevent the spread of STIs or other bacteria
- Use a vaginal lubricant that does not contain scents or irritating ingredients
- Only wear liners or pads whenever necessary for menstrual cycle management
Maintaining Clean Hygiene
You cannot prevent all vaginal scents, but it is possible to reduce unpleasant body odors through normal hygiene practices.
In addition to the steps above to minimize odors, you can also switch to wearing cotton undergarments and breathable fabric.
While yoga pants and leggings are popular for exercise, many are made from fabrics that trap heat, which leads to more sweating.
By exercising in breathable clothing, and wearing cotton undergarments for long stretches of time, you can naturally decrease how much sweat and odor is trapped in the vagina.
While it is important to cleanse the vaginal area, avoid using douches or special deodorizing products.
These contain scents and harsh cleaners that disrupt the vaginal flora.
While they may improve the scent in the short-term, it won’t be permanent and they can weaken the healthy flora of the vagina.
This could make it easier to get infections or STIs, which also lead to vaginal odors and other health complications.
Make sure you wipe front to back after using the bathroom.
Even small amounts of bacteria from fecal matter can contaminate the vaginal microflora and lead to infections or lower levels of good, protective bacteria.
When to See a Doctor
Even if a vaginal scent is normal, any time you notice a change that comes with other symptoms like pain or different discharge, you should check in with a healthcare provider.
They can help determine if what you are experiencing is normal or a cause for concern.
Typically a vaginal exam and some basic testing (swab and culture from the area) can explain the causes for unhealthy vaginal odors and lead to appropriate treatments.
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Vaginal itching and discharge. (2022).
Bacterial vaginosis—CDC Fact Sheet. (2022).
Clinical review: Vaginal discharge. (2007).
Role of female intimate hygiene in vulvovaginal health: Global hygiene practices and product usage. (2017).