Vaginal odor: what’s normal and what’s not

Everyone has body odor  it’s a fact of life.  

But for people with vagina odor “down below, it can sometimes be embarrassing and concerning. Are these odors normal and can they be prevented or eliminated? 

What causes the vagina to smell? 

In most cases, vaginal scents are very normal, and odor alone is not a symptom of a problem. The vagina and the area around it (groin skin, vulvar, etc.) contain healthy bacteria that are a part of our microbiome and include sweat glands. These can produce an odor that varies for each person.  

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

The wrong ways to reduce vaginal odor 

Sometimes to reduce the smellyou can make matters worse by 

  • Over washing or scrubbing the area 

  • Using soaps that can be irritating like antibacterial or scented soaps 

  • Douching 

  • Using scented deodorant sprays “down there” 

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 unhealthy bacteria, you may notice a more potent odor. But even that may not indicate there is a problem.  

Common infections 

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 include 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 anaerobic bacteria that disrupts the balance of healthy bacteria that live within the vagina. This condition can be triggered by having new or multiple sex partners, douching or smoking  though many people with a vagina have no particular risk factors for developing BV. It is treatable with antibiotics and some may need longer courses of treatment if the condition recurs. 

A yeast infection 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 certain menstrual products. Treatment with an antifungal medication is the standard treatment. 

Healthy tips to reduce vaginal odor 

While all vaginal odors cannot be prevented, you may be able to reduce the potency by trying some simple and healthy techniques and avoiding practices that disrupt the natural balance of bacteria: 

  • Wear breathable undergarments. Lycra and spandex undergarments and yoga 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 

  • 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. Call 402.472.5000 to schedule an appointment with a University Health Center reproductive health care provider.