If you think you caught a whiff of something funky down there, you might not be imagining it.
Smelly Down There?
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Most vaginas have their own natural scent, which is totally normal. Plus, the vagina cleans itself, so (no!) you don't need any kind of scented spray or those special vagina-cleansing products. (Mark those as something you should never put near your vagina.)
That said, there are certain things that can change your vagina's odor. "The first thing to understand is that the vagina has its own microbiome—so like the mouth and the gut, it is loaded with bacteria," says Karen Brodman, M.D., an ob-gyn in NYC and assistant clinical professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Normally, the vagina contains the bacterial strain Lactobacillus acidophilus, which keeps the vaginal pH acidic, rather than alkaline, due to the production of lactic acid, says Dr. Brodman. The vagina is healthy in this acidic state and can keep the less favorable bacteria, which can lead to bad odors, in check, she says.
So how do you know if your smell is normal or not? "It shouldn't smell fishy, or be strong enough to smell from afar," says Dr. Brodman. Smell something...off? First, go see your doc STAT (to make sure everything's OK). But FYI, here are a few abnormal reasons your vagina might smell.
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If you have a bacterial infection, such as bacterial vaginosis, you might notice a "fishy" odor. "It occurs when there is an overgrowth of the less favorable bacteria," says Dr. Brodman.
"When these bacteria start to predominate in the vagina, Lactobacillus species (remember, the good guys) decline, less lactic acid is produced, and the vaginal pH rises, changing from acid to alkaline," she explains. This change in the pH balance is what often makes the difference between a natural smell and a strong, unnatural odor that may be accompanied by a discharge. The discharge occurs because of the inflammatory change in the vaginal cells, Dr. Brodman adds.
The good news is that bacterial vaginosis is not sexually transmitted and can be treated with an antibiotic. Just avoid douching, as it can increase the risk of bacterial vaginosis.
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If you smell something fishy—literally—it could be trichomoniasis, a sexually transmitted infection that often doesn't show symptoms, which can make it tricky to diagnose. If you notice anything at all, it could be a different vaginal odor, vaginal irritation, and a thin discharge that can be clear, white, yellowish or greenish, explains Nita Landry, M.D., an ob-gyn in Los Angeles and cohost on The Doctors. The good news? Trichomoniasis is the most curable STI, so go see your doc and never skip checkups.
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The OG of down-there problems, yeast infections, can lead to various abnormal odors, says Dr. Landry. Fortunately, they can be treated with over-the-counter creams or a pill prescribed by your doctor, so there's no need to worry about anything too serious. An easy way to know if you have a yeast infection is by looking for symptoms, such as "cottage cheese–like discharge" and "vaginal itching, irritation, and/or redness," she says. To prevent yeast infections, pee after having sex, change out of sweaty workout clothes ASAP after a workout, and use condoms. (Related: 8 Scary Condom Mistakes You Could Be Making)
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You know that "sex smell" in the bedroom after a romp between the sheets? It could be your natural vaginal secretions interacting with semen. "The vaginal odor is exacerbated even more when an ejaculation occurs into the vagina," says Dr. Brodman. "Sperm has an alkaline pH. The alkaline pH mixed in with the bacteria releases an 'amine odor' which is detected as fishy." says Dr. Brodman. So, while the odor might not be super "sexy," there's nothing wrong here. (If you need a refresher, here's how to have safe sex.)
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A Trapped Tampon
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Sounds painful, right? Surprisingly enough, it happens and it can smell—bad. If it smells like "rotten meat," it could be a tampon that's trapped, says Dr. Landry. "If a tampon is left in place all day or if it's forgotten and left in the vagina for days, it will cause a bad odor," adds Dr. Brodman. What's more, a leaving in a tampon for too long can lead to more dangerous issues like toxic shock syndrome, which can be life-threatening if not treated immediately, says Dr. Landry. Needless to say, you'll want to book it to the ER if you can't remember whether you changed your tampon in the last 24 hours and you smell something strange. And, although less common, you can also trap other "foreign objects," such as sex toys (even old-school versions) and even food.
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Admit it. You've left many a HIIT class feeling strong, but with a sweaty crotch and a stench wafting through your leggings. If you're sweating a bit more than usual, from exercise or otherwise, wearing tight and constricting underwear (or workout leggings), or are on your period, you might notice a "musky" smell, says Dr. Landry. She suggests changing your underwear ASAP, getting out of those sweaty workout clothes, and washing the vagina lightly with warm water in its crevices and folds. Plus, at night, you can ditch the panties altogether to let your vagina breathe.
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