These Are The Vaginal Odors You Need To Know About

Photographed by Ashley Armitage.
Despite what the marketing claims on some "feminine hygiene" products might lead you to believe, vaginas do not require scented wipes to make them smell good. Vaginas are self-cleaning, like ovens or high-tech litter boxes. But they are also body parts, so they're expected to have an odor.
"There is a spectrum of normal vaginal odor that people can experience," says Linda Fan, MD, FACOG, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale School of Medicine. And even though there's a range of A-okay scents, many people are overly concerned with how their vaginas smell, she says.
That said, there are a few odors that can be indicative of an infection or other health problem. "I take odors seriously for sure," says Susan Loeb-Zeitlin, MD, FACOG, an Ob/Gyn at New York-Presbyerian/Weill Cornell Medicine.
If you are a person with a vagina, you should have some grasp on what your vagina smells like on a typical day, so you can sense when the odor is off or different, Dr. Fan says. Ahead are the common odors that you need to be aware of, and what it might mean if you catch a whiff. You should also be on the lookout for other symptoms, like discharge or itchiness, because those can also be signs of an infection. Find something disconcerting? It's never a bad idea to call your doctor and get checked out.
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The smell: Fishy

What it could mean: An infection

A distinctly fishy odor is definitely a sign that you have an infection, such as bacterial vaginosis, Dr. Loeb-Zeitlin says. Usually with BV, you'll also have a white or grayish discharge that has a strong, fishlike scent, and possibly some itchiness. See your doctor if you think you might have BV, because it's often confused with yeast infections, but requires an entirely different treatment plan.

A fishlike smell can also be a sign of trichomoniasis, which is a very common sexually transmitted infection, Dr. Fan says. It's typically treated with an antibiotic, but it can be passed between people, so you and your partners have to be treated to totally wipe it out, she says.
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The smell: Tinny, with notes of foulness

What it could mean: Period blood

Period blood definitely has a specific smell, that can cause a person's vagina to smell differently, too, Dr. Fan says. When you bleed on your period, you're also expelling bacteria, vaginal mucus, and tissue, so the smell is a little different than regular blood, Taraneh Shirazian, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the NYU Langone Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health told Refinery29. Also, if someone is wearing a pad and has been sitting in it for a while, that could also contribute to the odor, Dr. Loeb says.
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The smell: Musty and mild

What it could mean: Sweat

It's very common to have mild and stale types of odors, which aren't necessarily infection-related, Dr. Loeb-Zeitlin says. You might notice this especially when you're sweaty, like after you've been exercising, or have had sex, she says.

Hormonal changes can also slightly change the odor of someone's vagina to something that's musty, and that usually happens to people between ages 16 and 18, Dr. Fan says. "There's definitely a shift in hormones, and everything changes, but at that age, women say the odor can change," she says. Or if someone experiences a dietary or weight change, that can impact the odor, she says.
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The smell: Something dead

What it could mean: A tampon

This might make your cervix cringe, but oftentimes when people complain of a repugnant odor, the first thing Dr. Loeb-Zeitlin checks for is a retained tampon. "If there's a foreign body in there, it will definitely produce an awful odor," she says. If a person has a tampon stuck inside of them, doctors will usually just be able to pull it out, but the smell is unmistakable. "It's a really foul odor, and there's usually funny amounts of blood, which is suspicious for a tampon being left in," she says.
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The smell: Foul

What it could mean: A malignancy

In rare cases, a foul vaginal smell is a sign of a malignancy, or abnormal cells in the cervix, Dr. Loeb-Zeitlin says. Some symptoms of cervical cancer include an odor, watery and bloody discharge, pelvic pain, and bleeding between periods, according to the Mayo Clinic. Ask your doctor about your cervical cancer risk, and consider having a pap smear if it's been a while.
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