Where Does Vaginal Odor Come From & What Should You Do About It?

Photographed by Ashley Armitage.
Most of us have been conditioned to believe that any odor that comes from the lower half of the body is humiliating — and that includes farts, feet, and vaginas. But the thing is, if you're someone who has a vagina, then you're also going to have a somewhat of a vaginal odor because that's just how the human body works.
There's truly nothing embarrassing about having vaginal odor, but the countless products marketed for getting rid of vaginal odor have amplified this concern. So, what's the deal? What sort of vaginal odor is normal, and what do you do if your vaginal odor is abnormal? Ahead, we've answered some of those burning vaginal odor questions. Oh, and while we're on the topic of bodily odors: farts are supposed to smell, too.

What causes vaginal odor?

Vaginal odor is simply any smell that comes from the vagina, according to the Mayo Clinic. Often, vaginal odor comes from vaginal discharge, which is clear mucus secreted by the cervix and vaginal opening, mixed with cells, bacteria, and bodily fluid.

Is vaginal odor normal?

Yes, in the sense that every vagina has 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 told Refinery29. Certain things, like your period or your workout routine, can temporarily alter the odor of your vagina, though that's usually nothing to be concerned about. It's a good idea to know what your vagina smells like on a "normal" day, because a change in vaginal odor can signal that you have a vaginal infection.

What causes foul-smelling discharge?

If you have a vaginal infection, such as a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis, then extra bacteria in the vagina can cause smelly discharge, according to MedlinePlus. Different scents mean different things, but a fishlike odor is a common scent to be on the lookout for, because it can signal bacterial vaginosis or the sexually transmitted infection trichomoniasis. Often your discharge will change color when you have an infection, so it may appear grayish or yellow, too. And in some cases, if you notice a foul or dead odor as well as an unusual amount of blood, that could mean that you have a tampon stuck inside of you.

How do you get rid of vaginal odor?

Depending on the type of odor, it might be a good idea to see your Ob/Gyn or healthcare provider to rule out any possible infections. If you have a vaginal infection, your doctor will typically prescribe an oral antibiotic or suppository medication to get rid of it. Once the infection is treated, the odor usually goes away along with accompanying symptoms like itchiness.
Although it might be tempting to try a product (like a vaginal wash or wipe) that claims it'll "get rid of vaginal odor," steer clear. "The vagina is not the dirty horrible place that a lot of the [vaginal wash] advertisers might want you to think it is," Alyssa Dweck, MD, a gynecologist in New York and author of The Complete A To Z For Your V told Refinery29. And sometimes, scented vaginal washes can mess with your vagina's delicate balance of pH and bacteria, leading to more infections and odor.

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