Is vaginal odor normal?

Published November 3, 2020

Jennifer Griffin Miller, MD

By Jennifer Griffin Miller, MD, OB-GYN

We all have body odor. It’s a fact of life. But for many women, odor “down below “can sometimes be embarrassing and concerning. Women wonder if these odors are normal and can they be prevented or eliminated?

In most cases, vaginal scents are very normal, and odor alone is not a symptom of a problem. Our vulvar, groin skin and vagina are colonized with bacteria that are a part of our microbiome and include sweat glands and other glandular secretions as well. These secretions can produce an odor that varies for each person. 

If you’re a heavy sweater, you may have stronger smells at times. The odor may vary during your menstrual period, during pregnancy, or after sex.

Sometimes in an attempt to reduce vaginal odor, women may make the matter worse by over washing or scrubbing, using soaps that can be irritating such as antibacterial or scented soaps, douching, or the use of scented deodorant sprays. These types of practices can disrupt the natural vaginal flora (bacteria that live in the vagina) that keep it healthy and inhibit other organisms. When there is an imbalance of these organisms and an overgrowth of the unhealthy bacteria, you may notice a more potent odor.

But even that may not indicate that there is a problem. However, when a strong or unusual odor is accompanied by other symptoms such as irritation, itching, burning, or pain, you may have other issues going on and should consider seeking medical advice.

For example, trichomoniasis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that has a mild odor, produces a green and frothy discharge, and may also cause irritation and pain with intercourse. Risk factors includes having multiple sex partners and failure to use safe protection. Trichomoniasis should be treated to avoid long-term problems.

Bacterial vaginitis (BV) can produce a fishy odor that is also accompanied by increased vaginal discharge, irritation, burning, and sometimes itching. It is caused by an overgrowth of anerobic bacteria that disrupts the balance of healthy lactobacillus bacteria that live within the vagina. This condition can be triggered by having new or multiple sex partners, douching, or smoking – though many women have no particular risk factors for developing BV. It is treatable with antibiotics and some women may need longer courses of treatment if the condition recurs.

A yeast infection (candidal vaginitis) may be associated with a sweeter, beer-like odor. It is typically accompanied by a thicker, clumpier discharge and may include itching, irritation and rawness or skin breakdown. The condition can be triggered by antibiotic use (which can eliminate the good bacteria that normally colonize the vagina), poorly controlled diabetes and sometimes feminine products. Treatment with an antifungal medication is the standard treatment.

Tips to reduce vaginal odor

While all vaginal odor cannot be prevented, you may be able to reduce the potency of vaginal odor with some simple, healthy, feminine hygiene techniques, and avoiding practices that disrupt the natural balance of bacteria.

  • Wear breathable undergarments. Lycra and spandex undergarments and yoga type pants are not very breathable and can trap organisms around the vulva area, producing more odor. Consider wearing more breathable cotton undergarments or not wearing anything at all at night while sleeping
  • Avoid the use of perfumes, powders, deodorant sprays or other scented products in the vaginal area
  • Wash gently and do not use antibacterial soaps and scented soaps
  • If it is necessary to wash more than once during a day due to activity or exercise, remember to wash gently.  Don’t overuse soap in your vulvar and vaginal area and in some cases, you may even want to consider just rinsing with water
  • Try to avoid wearing wet or damp undergarments for long periods of time, which can promote the buildup of bacteria
  • Choose cotton undergarments over lycra or spandex, which tend to trap in moisture
  • Shower off after being in a lake, river or chlorinated pool.
  • Avoid wearing panty liners or pads when not absolutely necessary, as these trap more moisture next to the skin.

Changes in odor may be related to changes in diet or personal hygiene. If you start noticing a change in odor, think about the products you are using or what you’re doing differently. You may be able to resolve the issue simply by making some slight modifications in your practices. 

Concerned about your vaginal health? We can help. Schedule an appointment with one of our obstetrician and gynecologists. Call 800.922.0000.