“Did someone order fish for lunch?”
If you ever uncomfortably crossed your legs when a coworker asked that question, fear not. Most causes of vaginal odor are temporary and perfectly treatable. Whether by antibiotics or simply changing your underwear, you can make your intimate region smell like . . . well, not like roses, but certainly less like mackerel.
A slight smell is normal, but an overwhelmingly fishy smell could be a sign of bacterial vaginosis (BV). BV is a condition caused by changes in the bacteria in your vagina. The US Office on Women’s Health says researchers aren’t entirely sure what causes BV. However, doctors do recognize that women who douche, have multiple sexual partners, or have an unhealthy balance of bacteria have a higher risk of getting BV.
Even though BV is pretty common, having a doctor prescribe antibiotics for treatment is important because BV can increase the risk of getting a sexually transmitted disease (STD) like trichomoniasis.
About 3.7 million people in the United States have an infection from the parasite Trichomonas vaginalis, which can develop into the STD trichomoniasis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Trichomoniasis also has an unusually fishy smell and can be treated with medication. Another type of infection is a yeast infection, which has a sweet, sour, or beer-like odor. A yeast infection can be treated with over-the-counter creams, ointments, or suppositories and can be prevented by practicing healthy vaginal hygiene habits.
Changes in acidity near your vagina when you’re on your period can cause odor, says Flo, an online health platform reviewed by a medical board. Flo says that during menstruation, the blood has an elevated pH. This blood and uterine lining mix with the microflora in the walls of the vagina, affecting the smell.
And while we’re on the topic of menstruation, be sure to change your tampon regularly. A forgotten tampon can omit a pungent odor.
Not all smells are a sign of danger. A mild, musky smell may be partially due to pheromones that increase sexual attractiveness. This odor may change with hormonal shifts during the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause. While there aren’t too many ways to get rid of this smell, if the smell is so strong that it bothers you, you can talk to your doctor about hormone treatment options.
Keeping the vagina healthy is a balancing act of bacteria and acidity. Some of the foods we eat have different levels of acidity that can react with the vagina’s microflora, says Flo. These include strong spices, smoked foods, onion, garlic, broccoli, asparagus, coffee, or alcohol. Every woman’s body is different, so some women may produce an unpleasant vaginal odor when consuming these foods and drinks when other women don’t.
On the plus side, some foods can actually improve the smell down there. Flo says citrus fruits have a positive acidic effect on the smell and taste of the vagina. Yogurt, sauerkraut, and other probiotic foods can help promote healthy pH levels.
Sweat is a common cause of funky odor. Some perspiration is undeniable, but there are a few habits you can use to minimize the smell. First, wear breathable cotton underwear and avoid tight-fitting thongs or pantyhose during the summer or when you work out. Secondly, wash your genital region correctly. Instead of sprays, scented soaps, or douching, wash the area with gentle soap and warm water and pat dry with a towel.
An important note: in rare cases, unusual odors could be a symptom of certain cancers. If you’re ever unsure, check with your doctor.