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Why Does My Vagina Smell Funny?

Understanding Changes in Vaginal Odor


Updated May 09, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Image of a clue cell, which is a type of cell used to diagnose bacterial vaginosis.

Clue cells are vaginal epithelial cells that are covered in bacteria. They are one way of diagnosing bacterial vaginosis.

Photo Courtesy of the Public Health Image Library; CDC/M. Rein

Many women are concerned about vaginal odor. Although a healthy vagina has a scent, a scent that may change or get stronger during sexual arousal, it shouldn't have an unpleasant smell. A strong or foul vaginal odor, or a change in vaginal odor, may be a sign that a woman has an infection.

Several vaginal infections, both sexually transmitted and sexually associated, can affect vaginal odor. Therefore, if the smell of your vagina has changed or become unpleasant, or if you have a change in your vaginal discharge, it is a good idea to go visit a doctor. That way you can find out if you have an infection that needs to be treated, or if the change in the way your vagina smells just reflects other changes in your life - such as diet or hormonal shifts. 

Infections That Commonly Cause Vaginal Odor

The infection most commonly associated with a change in vaginal smell is bacterial vaginosis. Bacterial vaginosis, or BV, is not necessarily an STD, although it is associated with sexual behavior and has been shown to be sexually transmitted in lesbians. One of the main symptoms of BV is a strong, fishy odor that is particularly prominent after sex with men. The smell increases at that time because semen reduces the acidity of the vagina, and the chemical compounds that produce the smell are more noticeable at higher pH.

Trichomoniasis can also cause a change in vaginal odor. This infection is an STD, although men rarely have symptoms. In contrast, women infected with the Trichomonas vaginalis parasite usually develop a strong vaginal odor along with itching or discomfort during sex or urination. Their vaginal discharge may also change in appearance, becoming frothy or shifting in color.

Finally, yeast infections are known to cause vaginal odor changes in some women. Yeast infections are not sexually transmitted, and although they are sometimes associated with sex, some women are prone to them for other reasons. For example, women with uncontrolled diabetes may be at higher risk of yeast infections because yeast like to feed on the excess sugar in their urine.

Vaginal odor changes can also be a symptom of other sexually transmitted infections and reproductive conditions, particularly if those conditions are severe and/or accompanied by discharge. However, most of time a shift in vaginal smell is caused by conditions that are relatively straightforward to diagnose and treat. That doesn't mean that getting appropriate care is any less important. Left untreated, bacterial vaginosis can potentially leave women vulnerable to more serious infections, and it has occasionally been associated with pelvic inflammatory disease, which can affect fertility.

Vaginal Deodorants & Douches: Not the Answer

If you've noticed that your vagina smells funny, you may be tempted to address the problem by using a vaginal deodorant or vaginal douche. However, that's a bad idea. A strange or unpleasant vaginal smell is your body's way of telling you that something is wrong, and that you need to visit a doctor. Masking the odor doesn't fix the problem that is causing it, and the products you use to do so may even have the potential to make an infection worse.

Douching, in particular, can be a very bad idea if you have a vaginal infection. There has been some research that suggests douching with an infection can increase the risk of it ascending into your uterus and causing pelvic inflammatory disease. In addition, douching can alter the normal vaginal flora, which may actually predispose you to developing conditions such as BV. Therefore, unless a medicinal douche has been prescribed to you by a doctor, douching is probably not the best choice you can make for addressing vaginal odor... or improving your reproductive health


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