When it comes to vaginas, a change in odor — especially when it’s a noticeable, strong, or pungent smell  can understandably set off immediate red flags. While some scents down there are run-of-the-mill and not a cause for concern, others can and should be reasons to schedule an appointment and get checked out by a doctor.

For the down-low on all of the changing smells you might experience down there, we talked to OB/GYN Dr. Dorothy Bestoyong.

doctor holding a vaginal infection test strip near a woman's vulva

First things first: All vaginas have a scent

If you’re reading this and find yourself worrying “Oh my god, but my vagina always has a bit of a smell”  not to fear! All vaginas will generally have a scent, and that scent can even fluctuate based on a variety of factors in your day-to-day life. The vast majority of the time, a faint “smell” from your vaginal area is completely normal. These scents and variations can be due to: 

  • Hormones - You may notice a change in the smell of your vagina depending on the time of your menstrual cycle. Studies have shown that human vaginal odors change slightly in both pleasantness and intensity during the menstrual cycle.

  • Shifts in pH balance - Your “vaginal pH value” plays a valuable role in determining vaginal health.

  • Menstruation - A metallic smell is common and normal when on your period.

  • Dehydration - Vaginas can emanate a strong ammonia smell if you're especially dehydrated. Your urine can become especially concentrated and foul-smelling without enough water in your system, so take this as your reminder to drink up.

  • Sweat glands - Just finished a high-intensity workout? Took a walk on a sunny day? The external genitalia around your vagina and the pelvic area have sweat glands, which can produce an odor. 

  • Diet - Studies indicate that dietary consumption may play a crucial role when it comes to vaginal flora imbalances.

woman jogging and sweating near the ocean

“Fishy” or otherwise unpleasant vaginal odors

If you notice a sudden strong change in odor or a lingering off-putting smell that doesn’t seem to be going away, it could be a sign of an underlying condition and a tip-off to make an appointment with your doctor. 

Most commonly, these “fishy” smells can be attributed to an imbalance of vaginal bacterial levels, which in turn can lead to inflammation and infection. In these cases, you’ll likely also notice other symptoms accompanying the unpleasant scent, which can vary depending on the possible cause. 

Most commonly, the culprit of this classic (but highly treatable!) foul “fishy” smell is called Bacterial Vaginosis  aka, a vaginal infection caused by a bacterial imbalance. Vaginas always contain bacteria, but a healthy vagina is one in which these bacteria strike a harmonious balance. In the case of bacterial vaginosis, the “bad” bacteria grow to overpower the “good” bacteria. Once that balance is out of whack, you might begin to experience: 

  • Grey, off-white, or green-hued vaginal discharge

  • Fishy-smelling vaginal discharge

  • Vaginal itching or irritation

  • A burning sensation during or after urination

Another common cause of fishy scent is an (again, curable!) sexually transmitted infection called Trichomoniasis, or “trich”. Unlike BV, the symptoms experienced during a trich infection are caused by the parasite Trichomonas vaginalis. As is the case with STIs, Trich is contagious - which means you might be unknowingly infected, or infect others, during sexual contact. 

Up to 70% of people infected with trich don’t experience symptoms, which is one of the reasons the infection spreads so easily. For those who do experience symptoms, they most commonly begin anywhere from 5 - 28 days following the initial exposure. Alongside the telltale fishy odor, other symptoms can include: 

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  • Foamy or thin vaginal discharge

  • Yellow or green-hued vaginal discharge

  • Itchiness, irritation, and redness around the vaginal opening

  • Pain experienced during sexual intercourse 

  • A burning or painful sensation during or after urination

  • Pelvic pain

While you may think that a great solution to any vaginal odors  harmless or otherwise  may be to use a scented product or two down there, Dr. Bestoyong warns you to reconsider that notion. “Avoid using soaps with fragrance or douches, as those items can cause or make someone more prone to BV.” A good rule of thumb is to steer clear of any heavily fragranced soaps or hygiene products that may contain irritants.

woman gripping her lower abdomen in pain

When to see a doctor about vaginal odor

Any uncertainty about changes in your vaginal odor, sensations, or even just feeling not-quite-right warrants a call to your physician. In many cases, changes in odor are not a cause for concern, but even when they are indicators of a bigger issue such as a bacterial infection or STI, treatment is simple and conditions are highly remediable. Vaginal odors are totally common and nothing to be ashamed of. Just remember, when in doubt, a quick check-in with your doctor is always worth your time!

Lindsey Williams is a library worker and writer who lives in Arizona with her daughter, husband, and their dog, Peaches.