Vaginal odor

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 9, 2015
StartSymptomsVaginal odor

It can be stressful to deal with a vaginal odor when one is not familiar with all the symptoms that come along with odor, what odor could mean for one's health, or how to treat that odor. This is a comprehensive break-down of everything needed to know about vaginal odor.


Definition & Facts

Vaginal odor is any odor that originates from the vagina. When dealing with vaginal odor, it can be common to become embarrassed or self-conscious. However, keep in mind that vaginal odor is a common problem that many women deal with. It could also have many meanings and not necessarily be a health concern.

Vaginal odor isn't usually caused by poor hygiene. It's much more likely that the odor is caused by an imbalance in your pH levels. The pH of a healthy vagina is around 3.5 to 4.5. This is the type of environment needed for beneficial bacteria to thrive and protect against infections. When the pH balance is off, it can allow bad bacteria to gain a foothold, allowing an environment where there is odor and infection.


There are many different factors that can play into vaginal odor. One very common cause of odor in women is a yeast infection. If a yeast infection is present, there is no need to be embarrassed. Yeast infections are common. Seventy-five percent of all women will experience a yeast infection at some point during their lives. And fifty percent of all women will experience two or more yeast infections.

With a yeast infection, inflammation and itching usually accompany vaginal odor. Even more common than yeast infections is bacterial vaginosis. Two-thirds of women who thought they had a yeast infection actually had bacterial vaginosis. This is also caused by an upset to the pH balance in the vagina. BV is typically seen with odor, itching, and thick discharge.

Typically, the odor is described as "fishy". Vaginal odor can also be caused by poor hygiene. For women that find themselves in an environment where they are sweating frequently, it is very important to wash often and thoroughly. Vaginal odor can also be caused by a tampon that is left in too long, or forgotten. Sometimes vaginal odor is only more noticeable during certain periods of time, such as throughout the menstrual cycle or right after having sex.

This is regular odor, and not something to be concerned about. One cause of vaginal odor that is less common than BV or a yeast infection, but still has merit, is trichomoniasis. This is a sexually transmitted infection caused by a parasite. This can cause bad smelling discharge, itching, and a burning sensation during urination.

When to see a doctor

The first route for treating vaginal odor should always be over the counter products for the typical BV or yeast infection. However, if the odor seems abnormal or is persistent, it is time to make an appointment with a doctor. You should also go to see a doctor if you are having other symptoms in combination with the odor.

These symptoms could be: itching, burning, irritation, or discharge. Before you get the chance to see a doctor, make sure you are washing the external area of the vagina. During your regular bathing, use small amounts of mild, unscented soap, and lots of water.

Treatment & Therapy

There are many different steps one can take to start treating vaginal odor. The first step is to try to find the cause toward the odor, and then make the appropriate changes. Wear loose clothing and cotton underwear to increase airflow towards the vagina prevent any moisture buildup that could cause odors.

Change clothes after exercising or any heavy exertion that caused sweating. Shower regularly. Skipping a shower for just one day can cause odor. If the odor is being caused by a yeast infection, there are many different treatments available. Over the counter vaginal creams are sold in most drug stores. Creams are typically inserted into the vagina using an applicator. These creams are made to kill off the yeast that causes the infection. These creams are typically only used at bedtime, as they leak out of the vagina during the day.

There are also medications, such as tablets and suppositories, that can be used in lieu of a cream. It is the same medication, but a different method of insertion. If the cause of the odor is bacterial vaginosis, there are also many treatments. It is treated with antibiotics, as there are no effective over the counter treatments that have been proven to resolve the condition. While around one third of bacterial vaginosis cases cure on their own, it is always recommended to see a doctor and get antibiotics.

Common medications used in treatment are metronidazole taken in either pill form or vaginally with a gel. Tinidazole is also used as a treatment, and is sometimes preferable as it has fewer side-effects than other prescribed treatments. Vaginal clindamycin cream can also be prescribed as a form of treatment. It is important to remember that douching is no longer a recommended way to keep the vaginal area clean and odor-free. Douching can actually cause infections, cause pelvic inflammatory disease, cause complications for those that are pregnant, and has been proven to increase the risk of cervical cancer.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

There are many different options when it comes to taking steps to prevent vaginal odor. Washing regularly is always the first and best step towards keeping good hygiene and remaining infection and odor free. Keeping a healthy diet and exercising regularly are also key factors in keeping away strong vaginal odors.

Eating plenty of yogurt, especially yogurts with probiotics, are found to be effective in preventing conditions with vaginal odor from occurring. Always wipe from front to back after bowel movements, to prevent the spread of rectal bacteria. Change underwear daily.

During one's period, it is important to change pads, tampons, and pantyliners frequently. Avoid using scented products, especially ones like body soaps or laundry detergents, that will be in contact with the genital area. There are also probiotic supplements available that are made to ensure a healthy level of good bacteria in the body.