Why does my vagina smell a bit… bad?

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Why does my vagina smell a bit… bad?

The smell of garlic and bread… Mmm, sounds delicious, right? Italian breakfast, warming soup, whatever comes to mind. If the smell of garlic bread comes from your vagina though, you should have it checked.

Ewa Stanicka

Published: 22.11.20217 minreading time

Vaginal odor

Illustration: Jarek Danilenko

Vaginal biocoenosis – precious balance

To be able to quickly notice the change in smell of your intimate areas, you should be aware of how your vaginal fluid smells and looks when everything is okay down there. In a healthy vagina, it has a neutral, slightly sour smell; it’s usually transparent or white-ish. Its colour, smell, and taste do change a little as the menstrual cycle progresses – during your fertile days, the mucus increases in volume and becomes thinner; its smell becomes less soury. The acidic vaginal pH keeps your vagina healthy – it doesn’t contribute to the spread and growth of harmless germs and bacteria. To keep it that way, our vaginas have their protectors in the form of lactobacilli. However, sometimes they’re depleted and the balance of the vaginal flora gets destabilised. The foul smell and atypical colour of the mucus are then the first of symptoms telling us that we have a problem.

When and why your vagina smells off?

Abnormal vaginal odor is most often related to the imbalance of the bacterial flora, which can have multiple causes. Diet, hygiene, and lifestyle, to name but a few, are aspects that we have the power to change – so to set things right with vaginal odors, all it takes sometimes is to verify our habits. Another source of the unpleasant vaginal smell can be bacterial or yeast infections. Let’s have a look at what our precious organ wants to tell us when it starts to smell differently.

Take a look at our text on vaginal anatomy.

Fishy smell

When your vagina smells like that, it’s an indication of a bacterial infection, which is related to an insufficient number of lactobacilli. As a result, harmless-by-day vaginal bacteria, such as Gardnerella vaginalis, can replicate uninterruptedly. In case of a more severe infection, the fishy odor is accompanied by other symptoms, such as sting and itching of the intimate area, fatigue, malaise, increased temperature, and greyish, yellowish, or greenish vaginal discharge. Luckily, the disease, ominously called “bacterial vaginosis”, is totally curable, and the treatment relies on topical antibiotic therapy. If you your vagina smells like fish, don’t ignore it – untreated bacterial vaginosis, which is the most common vaginal infection, can facilitate the development of a sexually transmitted infection; it can also be dangerous to pregnant people, as it can lead to a premature bursting of foetal membranes, miscarriage, or developmental abnormalities of the foetus.

Soury smell

This can be a sign of a vaginal infection caused by a parasite called trichomonas vaginalis. It is often accompanied by cumbersome leucorrhoea – greenish or yellowish, foamy discharge – and pain of the intimate area. The parasite is transmitted through contact with a carrier’s mucus, so most often (though not always) during sex. This problem can also be easily solved by applying adequate pharmacotherapy; and to protect yourself from a recurrent infection, the treatment should be extended to your partner/s.

Onion smell

If the smell reminds us of that one time we went to a French restaurant to eat this delicious onion soup… Well, it might be just that. When we smell onion or garlic from our vagina, the first thing we should do is review our menu from the past few days. The abnormal vaginal odor can be caused by allicin, which shows strong bactericidal properties. Unfortunately, our fierce lactobacilli are not impervious to it, which is why it’s the allicin that takes over and oozes its distinctive smell. However, if it stays for more than a couple of days and any sanitary manoeuvres aren’t helping, it can be a signal of a more serious imbalance in your bacterial flora.

Bread and yeast smell

Vaginal odors of this kind point naturally to yeast infections. The commotion is caused by Candida fungi living in almost all vaginas, which is completely natural, as our heroes, lactobacilli, and other “good” bacteria keep them in check. When the number of heroes depletes, the fungi begin to replicate, which might result in candidiasis. Sounds dangerous; however, in most cases it’s completely curable (although short-term recurrent episodes do occur) and its treatment relies on gynaecologist-prescribed ointments or vaginal globules.

Bad meat smell

Some people complain that their vaginas smell like something had died in there. Putrescine and cadaverine, as they are the ones to blame, are organic chemical compounds which are by-products of protein putrefaction. Don’t fret, you are not turning into a zombie, though! Meaty smell is a rare phenomenon which can accompany periods, that is, when a substantial amount of protein-rich blood is excreted from the vagina. Adequate hygiene and frequent changing of tampons or pads should do the trick!

What else can cause vaginas to smell bad?

Strange vaginal odor can be a result of a number of factors unrelated directly to our health. How to recognise them? First of all, pay attention to your hygiene – and no, we’re not talking about scrubbing it with all products available; sometimes it’s all about the opposite of that. Very often, the cause of a foul vaginal odor is the fact that we wash our intimate areas too intensively, disrupting the natural bacterial flora which can’t keep up with its duties of maintaining order down there, which makes us prone to getting infections. Therefore, the rule of thumb of intimate hygiene is proportion – washing only the external parts, using product with the right pH, quickly changing sweaty clothes, wearing breathable underwear (or not wearing it at all, when you sleep, for instance), and, during menstruation, using safe intimate care products (such as ours, to be found here).

The balance of healthy vaginas can also be disrupted by periodic changes, such as illnesses, change of the surroundings, or diet (simple sugar-rich diet contributes to the development of various infections). If a suspicious vaginal odor occurs when you’re travelling, the case might be that you suddenly use different than usual water to wash yourself, you eat differently, and your daily schedule changes completely. It’s possible that this foul vaginal odor will disappear when you return home, when you reenter your routine. However, if it lingers for a bit too long, weeks passing with no improvement, it’s time to see a doctor.

Unpleasant vaginal odor – treating vaginal infections

Naturally, when you notice that your vagina starts to smell differently, the best thing you can do is make an appointment with your doctor who’ll provide medical advice and a proper diagnosis. A specialist will be able to recognise the precise cause of the smell and implement adequate, safe, and effective treatment. If, for some reason, you can’t get professional help, there are non-prescription medicines in your local drugstore which will quell inflammation and help get rid of the nasty smell. We can also use prebiotics (which, as distinct from probiotics, don’t contain strains of bacteria, but substances aiding the already existing ones) and probiotics (for instance, with the Lactobacillus acidophilus strain) supporting the reconstruction of the bacterial flora. These are safe to use for pregnant people, as well as those who breastfeed. Just to be on the safe side – always read the leaflet or, preferably, visit your doctor.

An unpleasant smell can make us feel awkward; and to hear that you have bacterial vaginosis or candidiasis can sound scary. Luckily, there’s a huge chance that these worrying infections can be easily cured and the smell of yeast or garlic will only be coming from our kitchens.

In a nutshell

  1. The foundation of bacterial balance in your vagina are lactobacilli.

  2. Unpleasant vaginal smell can be a result of unhealthy habits or infections.

  3. Vaginal infections are completely treatable.

  4. Fishy-smelling discharge can indicate bacterial vaginosis.

  5. Soury smell is a signal of trichomonas vaginalis-induced infection and the treatment should be extended to our partner/s.

  6. Onion smell is most often related to an onion-rich diet or poor hygiene.

  7. Yeast smell indicates a yeast infection caused by Candida fungi.

  8. Problems with foul vaginal smell can be avoided if we eat healthy, pay attention to proper hygiene, and test ourselves regularly.

  1. P. Bogucki, I. Mogilnicka, M. Ufnal, Microbiota and Malodor–Etiology and Management, „International Journal of Molecular Sciences” 2020, vol. 21, i. 8, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7215946/ [dostęp z dn. 26.07.2021].

  2. P. Hay, Bacterial vaginosis, „F1000Research” 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5621139/ [dostęp z dn. 26.07.2021].

  3. P. Kissinger, Trichomonas vaginalis: a review of epidemiologic, clinical and treatment issues, „BMC Infectious Diseases” 2015, vol. 15, https://bmcinfectdis.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12879-015-1055-0 [dostęp z dn. 26.07.2021].

  4. Vaginal yeast infection (thrush): Overview, Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK543220/ [dostęp z dn. 26.07.2021].

Author

Ewa Stanicka
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