health STI

Should your vagina smell?

The supermarket shelves are lined with products encouraging us to keep our lady parts clean and pleasant-smelling. Whereas, the truth is that most women’s natural scent is normal and your vagina shouldn’t need to smell like a field of flowers or a box of feminine deodorant spray to be healthy. But still wouldn’t you like to know why your vagina smells?

Why does the vagina smell?
The vagina is a carefully balanced biological system of fluid (discharge) and bacteria meant to keep the vaginal PH at a healthy acidic 4. . This combination of fluid and bacteria that make up your vaginal discharge can, at times, emit certain odors. Most of these odors are natural and normal, but there are times when excess odor can signal a serious problem.

So what is a “normal” type of vaginl odour? 
After performing a very unscientific poll of all the gynecologists I know, we determined that one can smell a normal vagina from 1 foot away. More pungent odor or any odor associated with pain, burning or itching should prompt a visit to your provider.

Some common causes of bad vaginal odour include:

  • Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) – The vagina is normally colonized with healthy bacteria, but if something disturbs the system, then unhealthy bacteria like BV can take over. BV is most commonly caused by an overgrowth of the bacteria Gardnerella vaginalis. Symptoms include a thin grey, runny discharge and a strong fishy odour. The odor is more pungent when in contact with semen, so often women will first notice this as a strong odor after sex. BV is annoying and can increase your risk of other infections, but is easily treated with antibiotics. Learn more here
  • Douching: Douching is never a cure for vaginal odor or any other reason. It only further changes the bacterial content and can spread infection. Douching also carries the risk of pushing an infection further up your reproductive tract.You don’t need to insert anything inside your vagina to clean it: no douche, no oils, no soap, no antibacterial soap, no Listerine (and any other ‘interesting’ item, women like to use to ‘clean themselves’). Simply think of your vagina as a “self-cleaning device.”
  • Sexually Transmitted Infections: This goes without saying as many STI’s have symptoms which include foul smelling discharge. But because some STI’s do not show noticeable symptoms like a foul smell or discharge, it pays to go for STI testing if you have more than one partner that you have unprotected sex with or are just starting to have sex with a new partner.
  • Urine: Like sweat, urine is a common cause of vaginal odor and can make the vagina smell bad. To avoid this, rinsing after passing urine and patting your vagina dry is a quick way to avoid this. Also it’s advisable to change underwear that may have absorbed too much residual urine instead of overworking the same panties all day long
  • Your Diet – The old adage “You are what eat” is true, all the way down to your lady parts. Garlic, onion, asparagus, and curry are few of the more odoriferous foods known to affect body odor and to cling to various pores of your body.
  • Medications/ Supplements – Medications such as antibiotics can affect the bacterial balance of your vagina leading to changes in odor and discharge. Antihistamines can lead to vaginal dryness and decreased vaginal secretions, which can also have an effect. Additionally, some herbal therapies can lead to changes in vaginal odor, so be conscious of which one’s you may be using.
  • Dried or soaked sanitary pad-Keeping the same sanitary pad on for several hours can be uncomfortable and lead to increase in the bacteria that lives in your vagina. This is especially true if  the pad is soaked and you still do not change it. The smell can be so strong that people standing beside you can also smell it, yet for some reason some ladies will not bother to change their pads. Advice is simple, discard old pad, rinse your vagina, wash external parts with soap if you can and use a fresh pad, even if there’s none available, find a substitute for the time-being like tissue.
  • A Forgotten Tampon – This odor is so foul, it is unlike anything you have ever smelled in your entire life. It’s the one smell that makes even the gynecologist gag: the forgotten tampon smell. For some reason, some women forget they inserted a tampon, I mean, if you put inside your private area, why on earth would you forget to take it out? Patients on many occasions have described the odor as ”it smells like something crawled up in there and died.” I would have to agree that this is an honest description. Even though the odor is particularly offensive, it resolves quickly once the tampon is removed. However, the retained tampon can also lead to serious infection, so it is important to see your doctor should this occur (symptoms include a brown discharge and odor).
  • Sweat – Much like your armpits, the skin around your vagina is prone to excessive sweating. Sweat when combined with your natural discharge can change our natural scent to a whole new level of stink. Although sweat is a natural odor, it can be slightly unpleasant. To minimize the smell, change your clothes after exercising and wear breathable (cotton) underwear and fabrics.
  • Hormonal Changes – The amount of discharge varies throughout menstrual cycles. Hormonal therapies, birth control pills and vaginal creams can have an effect on the vaginal PH and odor as well. If you have hit menopause, it can also lead to major changes as your decreasing estrogen levels can lead to increase in incidence of yeast infection and BV.
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Other tips for prevention of vaginal odor

  • If you’re still concerned about your vagina’s odor, but have no other symptoms, you may first try increasing your water intake and avoid holding your urine when pressed.
  • For proper hygiene, clean the external area of your vagina (vulva and labia) with a mild soap and using clean water only for rinsing the internal area.
  • If odor persists despite these measures, then visit your healthcare provider.

Culled from WebmdHeather Rupe, DO

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