Despite the unrealistic social expectations placed upon women, your vagina will never smell like a springtime rose.
Strong or unusual vaginal odour is very common among all age groups.
It’s often accompanied by a change in discharge. It’s entirely normal to have clear or white discharge that changes throughout your monthly cycle.
Sometimes, it’ll dry to a slight yellow colour in your underwear.
ON THIS PAGE
- What can cause unusual vaginal odour?
- Tips on genital hygiene
- When to visit your GP
- About Dr Achala Manchanda
However, normal vaginal discharge shouldn’t generally bother you. If a curious odour is evident for more than a few days or is noticeably strong, you may have something going on downstairs.
Women sometimes describe the odd smell as fishy, yeasty, ammonia-like, or even metallic.
When accompanied by vaginal discomfort, itching, or a change in the colour or amount of discharge compared to normal, you can be almost certain something is amiss.
Your vagina does an excellent job taking care of itself. With a healthy pH (acidity) level between 3.8 and 4.5, it will self-clean while fighting off nasty, odour-causing bacteria.
On the other hand, problems can arise if the balance of pH, bacteria, and yeast is interrupted.
What Can Cause an Unusual Vaginal Odour?
There are lots of possible causes of a smelly vagina, and here are a few of the most common.
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is the most common vaginal infection affecting women aged 15 to 44.
It’s caused by a bacterial imbalance in the vagina, with a reduction of the ‘good’ vaginal bacteria (lactobacillus) and an overgrowth of the ‘bad’ Gardnerella bacteria. The latter is commonly found at lower levels in the vagina.
Typical symptoms include a fishy odour and grey or watery vaginal discharge.
Most GPs have removed tampons forgotten from previous menstrual cycles. Women are often mortified when this happens, yet I reassure them that they’re only human with busy lives full of distractions.
Once you’ve had a tampon removed, it’s important to be alert to any ongoing vaginal discomfort or flu-like symptoms. Any abnormal odours or discharge should disappear after a few days.
Please see your GP if symptoms don’t improve.
SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED INFECTIONS (STI)
Trichomonas is an uncommon sexually transmitted infection that can result in a change in vaginal odour.
Tips on Genital Hygiene
Here are some great hygiene tips to consider practising as part of your routine.
GENTLE WASHING HELPS PH STAY BALANCED
Avoid washing your genital area with soap – especially inside your vagina. Most soaps, including scented body wash and so called ‘feminine products’, can mess with the vagina’s natural acidity, helping ‘bad’ bacteria to flourish.
Warm water does the job just fine.
As semen and lubricants can interrupt your pH level while introducing bacteria, it’s wise to wash after sexual intercourse.
I’m certainly not suggesting you ruin the mood by rushing into the shower; just have a good rinse when you can.
SAY “NO” TO DOUCHES
As your vagina is perfectly capable of cleaning itself, there’s no need for douches.
Douches are unnecessary products commonly marketed in the USA to ‘keep your vagina clean’. There’s no scientific evidence whatsoever for this claim.
Worse still, douching will likely wash away the good bacteria in your vagina. The result is often a compromised pH level, followed by unwanted infections and odours.
AVOID INTERNAL DEODORISING PRODUCTS
Avoid any products that suggest your vagina should smell like coconut vanilla pudding. The concept is utterly ridiculous.
Marketers play on many women’s insecurities about natural vaginal odour being off-putting. I find it offensive to infer women’s genitals are dirty and need to be freshened and perfumed.
Vaginal deodorisers are bad for you, and they can unbalance your vaginal flora and create the problems they claim to solve.
WEAR CLOTHING THAT LETS YOUR VAGINA BREATH
Cotton underwear is preferable to silk or polyester undies. Err on the side of loose clothing. Change out of sweaty activewear ASAP after exercise.
I don’t recommend wearing pantyliners every day, either. They can irritate your genital skin.
It’s also a good idea to remove any wet clothes as soon as practical following swimming or exercise.
Some other hygiene tips:
- Always wipe your vagina from front to back.
- Take a shower after exercise or excessive sweating.
- Don’t insert objects into your vagina that have been in your anus, such as sex toys.
- To avoid a UTI, remember to urinate after intercourse.
When to Visit Your GP
You know your body better than anyone else. My advice? Follow your instincts. If you feel things aren’t quite right, skip the home remedies and over-the-counter treatments and get to your GP.
Indicators you may need to visit a doctor include:
- an odour that seems to be getting stronger;
- a persistent change in the colour or amount of vaginal discharge; or
- itching or burning.
Your GP will usually take a detailed history, perform an examination and possibly collect a vaginal swab. If you don’t feel comfortable with having a GP take a swab, you can always self-collect in the clinic’s bathroom.
Some vaginal infections, such as bacterial vaginosis, can be treated with internal creams and gels. STIs such as trichomonas might require tablet antibiotics.
It’s best to avoid over-the-counter products such as the Vagisil and Femfresh range, as they can do more harm than good. Studies have shown that such products impact lactobacillus growth – the good bacteria in your vagina.
Please don’t delay seeing a GP if any of the above indicators are present.
Infections that aren’t adequately treated can cause further complications with your pelvic area and even lead to infertility.
Dr Achala Manchanda is a local GP at Doctors of South Melbourne.