The vagina has a unique fragrance. Some females may feel self-conscious about the scent of their vagina, but it is normal for a healthy vagina to have a slight scent. However, this odor can change when infections or other health concerns are present.
Nutrition, health status, and other factors can affect the natural fragrance of the vagina. Many products offer to "improve" vaginal odor, but this is neither medically necessary nor safe.
In fact, doing so can lead to infections that could cause or exacerbate an unpleasant odor.
In this article, we explore strategies for reducing vaginal odor safely and addressing any underlying medical concerns.
Negative feelings about vaginal odor can lead to difficulties with self-esteem and body image.
However, it is normal for the vagina to have a mild, musky smell.
This odor changes with hormonal shifts during pregnancy, menopause, and the menstrual cycle. A subtle smell is not a cause for concern.
However, females with other vaginal odors may wish to seek consultation with a doctor.
The sections below cover these odors in more detail.
Fishy vaginal odor
When certain factors affect the complex chemistry of the vagina, harmful bacteria can grow out of control, producing a fishy odor.
Some females with bacterial vaginosis may experience other symptoms, such as itching or burning. This may feel similar to a yeast infection. For many, however, the fishy odor is the only symptom.
Prescription antibiotics can help treat this infection, and adopting certain healthful habits can reduce the risk of experiencing it again. These include:
- Avoiding douches: These can affect the delicate pH balance of the vagina.
- Not using scented or flavored products in or around the vagina: Perfumes and other products, such as scented tampons, can alter the chemistry of the vagina and give rise to bacterial vaginosis.
- Limiting sexual partners and practicing safe sex: Although bacterial vaginosis is not a sexually transmitted infection (STI), having multiple sexual partners can affect the bacterial balance of the vagina, potentially causing bacterial vaginosis.
Sweet or beer-like vaginal odor
An overgrowth of yeast in the vagina can produce a sweet smell, similar to that of honey or cookies. The vagina might also smell like beer, flour, or bread. It can also smell sour sometimes.
Intense burning, itching, or feelings of dryness usually accompany yeast infections. These symptoms tend to get worse over time. Some females may also notice a discharge that resembles cottage cheese.
These conditions are treatable using over-the-counter medications. However, females who have not had a yeast infection before should seek consultation with a doctor to rule out other causes.
Many of the same measures that can prevent bacterial vaginosis, such as avoiding scented products and never douching, are also effective in preventing yeast overgrowth.
Other strategies include:
- Only taking antibiotics when necessary: In some females, antibiotics can kill beneficial vaginal bacteria, triggering the growth of vaginal yeast.
- Not engaging in oral sex with people who have thrush in their mouth: People can pass on thrush through mouth-to-genital contact.
- Keeping the vaginal area relatively dry: As yeast develops most rapidly in moist environments, it is important to avoid leaving moisture on the vagina after cleaning. Towel off after taking a bath or shower, and avoid sitting in wet swimwear or underwear.
Hormonal changes that occur during menopause can alter the scent of the vagina and leave the vagina feeling dry.
Some STIs can also alter the smell of the vagina, notably trichomoniasis.
Females should seek consultation with a doctor about any noticeable changes in vaginal odor — particularly if the smell is strong or unpleasant. However, they should not use perfume to mask the smell.
The following sections will list some tips for preventing vaginal odor.
Adopting safe and gentle vaginal hygiene practices can help reduce vaginal odor. Some tips include:
wiping the vagina from front to back, as this prevents fecal matter from entering the vagina
- urinating immediately after sex
- using a gentle, fragrance-free soap on the vulva only
- changing underwear daily, or when the underwear is sweaty or soiled
- washing underwear in unscented products
- taking a shower after sweating, as trapped sweat can increase vaginal odor
- if there is an unpleasant odor, washing the vulva with water
- using a washcloth between showers to gently wipe down the area
Inserting soap into the vagina can affect vaginal pH, potentially leading to infections and an unpleasant odor.
Some females might notice a stronger vaginal odor during menstruation. Hormonal changes can cause an odor similar to iron or ammonia. Some menstrual products can trap odor, compounding this effect.
To reduce vaginal odor due to menstruation, try using internal products. The moisture of maxi pads and reusable cloth pads can contribute to odor. Sitting on a wet pad can also give rise to infection.
It is also important to change menstrual products frequently.
Some people notice a strong, fishy odor immediately after sexual intercourse, which is a sign of bacterial vaginosis. Others may note a less distinct smell.
Sometimes, semen interacts with vaginal fluid, contributing to vaginal odor. Some lubricants can also affect the pH of the vagina, which can affect the scent.
People may wish to take to following steps after vaginal intercourse to reduce any odor:
- Use a condom to prevent contact between semen and vaginal fluids.
- Rinse the vulva with water. Doctors do not recommend douching.
- Avoid using scented or flavored lubricants.
Probiotics support healthy bacteria throughout the human body, including in the vagina. They may also help prevent some vaginal infections, especially yeast infections.
Probiotics can reduce the risk of vaginal odor, as they help restore the vagina's normal pH.
Clothing can trap fluids and substances around the vagina, including:
- dead skin
- semen from previous intercourse
Very tight-fitting clothing, including some shapewear, is often responsible for trapping these. Fecal matter that reaches the vagina can cause infections and odors, so it is important to avoid clothing that encourages this spread. This includes tight-fitting thong underwear.
Breathable cotton is the best choice for those with concerns about vaginal odor, as it is less likely to hold moisture close to the vagina. This makes it more difficult for bacteria and other sources of odor to build up and produce a strong smell.
Consuming sugary foods can trigger an overgrowth of yeast, which can strengthen the odor of the vagina.
No research is available that supports the use of any specific food to change the smell of the vagina. However, some anecdotal evidence suggests that consuming sweet-smelling foods such as watermelon, apple, and celery might help.
Females should also try to drink plenty of water. Remaining well-hydrated prevents bacterial overgrowth. It can also prevent sweat from smelling irregular, resulting in a less pronounced vaginal odor.
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