What Causes Vaginal Odor? 6 Common Reasons, and When to See a Doctor

by | Updated: April 4th, 2023 | Read time: 5 minutes

Any healthy vagina will have a slight scent. But if you’re noticing a funky or potent odor, especially through your clothing, it may be a good idea to check in with your healthcare provider. A noticeably “off” scent could indicate that there’s a problem. And not addressing it can lead to discomfort, pain or – worse – bigger health issues. We talked to a board-certified gynecologist to clarify what’s normal, and what’s potentially not. Keep reading to learn more.

Leg and Lap View of Five Women Sitting in Chairs to Represent Concept of Vaginal Odor

Vaginal odor: What’s healthy?

According to Dr. Kimberly Shaw, a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist at Warner’s Women’s Healthcare in Madera, Calif., vaginal odor will vary from person to person.

“The natural scent of a healthy vagina is typically described as slightly musky or tangy,” Shaw says.  “Some women may have a naturally sweet-smelling vagina, while others may have a more earthy aroma. The strength of vaginal odor can vary depending on a woman’s individual body chemistry, menstrual cycle and hygiene habits.”

If you notice a strong (but not typical) odor, Shaw advises tweaking your hygiene routine to see if it helps. This includes washing the external genital area with warm water and mild soap, wearing breathable cotton underwear and avoiding tight-fitting clothing.

What causes vaginal odor?

Strong vaginal odor can occur for a number of reasons – some of which are considered ‘normal’ or expected, and others that may be cause for concern. Here are six potential causes, along with what to do if you detect an issue.

1. Exercise or sweating

It’s not uncommon for odor to be noticeable post-workout. “Exercise and sweating can cause vaginal odor due to the accumulation of sweat and bacteria in the genital area,” Shaw says. It may be different from your natural odor, but it generally isn’t cause for alarm.

The solution? Just like ridding yourself of body or under-arm odor after exercise, simply take shower to address the issue. Be sure to use warm water and a mild soap, or try a product such as Lola Cleansing Wash which is formulated to support pH balance, reduce odor-causing bacteria and moisturize.

2. Sexual activity

Blissful as it may be, sex sometimes results in not-so-pleasant odor afterwards. “Sex can alter vaginal pH levels and cause temporary changes in vaginal odor,” Shaw says.

Again, follow basic hygiene practices, like washing with warm water and mild soap, and you should be good to go. If, however, you notice an unpleasant “fishy” odor, it may indicate that you have an infection, also known as bacterial vaginosis (BV), which requires antibiotic treatment.

To avoid infections, Shaw says that using a gentle, pH-balancing wipe immediately after sex is helpful. “If you use pH balancing wipes, such as PureTouch Feminine Wipes, you’ll reduce vaginal odor by restoring the natural pH balance of the genital area.”

Note that excessive use of personal wipes isn’t recommended, as it can disrupt your natural pH balance and lead to other issues. Occasional use after sex (or exercise) is OK.

Taking probiotics regularly also may help with pH balance and maintaining a healthy vaginal microbiome.

“Probiotics can help keep vaginal odor in check by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria in the genital area, which can help maintain a healthy pH balance and prevent the overgrowth of harmful bacteria,” Shaw says.

Look for products such as Olly Happy Hoo Ha, which contains specific probiotic strains to support vaginal wellness.

3. Menstruation

When that time of the month rolls around, you may notice stronger or different odors, possibly with metallic overtones resulting from the presence of blood.

“Menstruation can cause changes in vaginal odor due to hormonal fluctuations and blood accumulation in the vaginal canal,” Shaw says.

Using feminine hygiene products with odor protection can help reduce unpleasant scents. If you detect a noticeably strong, foul odor, be sure you haven’t forgotten to remove a tampon. A stuck tampon or tampon shedding can lead to serious health issues that require medical attention.

4. Eating certain foods

Some foods are known to increase body odors – including vaginal odor. “Garlic and onions, and spicy foods, can cause vaginal odor due to their aromatic compounds being excreted through sweat and vaginal secretions,” Shaw says.

While you don’t need avoid these foods (especially considering their health benefits!), limit your consumption if vaginal odor becomes an issue for you. Good personal hygiene always helps, as previously noted.

5. Sexually transmitted diseases/infections

Sexually transmitted diseases or infections, BV and yeast infections all can cause vaginal odor due to the overgrowth of harmful bacteria. The odor associated with these conditions will differ from a woman’s natural scent and is often accompanied by other symptoms, such as itching, pain or discharge.

If you notice other symptoms, and showering doesn’t help, make an appointment with your healthcare provider. Treatment involves antibiotics or antifungal medications that need to be prescribed by a professional.

6. Dehydration

Lastly, if you’re dehydrated (especially after workouts or other instances of excessive sweating), vaginal odor may be more potent than usual. According to Shaw, this can occur any time of day, regardless of the activity or amount of sweat production. The solution? Be sure to drink the recommended 8 glasses of water daily to keep vaginal odor in check (and promote wellness in general!).

These statements have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.

Featured Products

Nature's Way Probiotic Pearls® Women's Vaginal & Digestive Health
Olly Happy Hoo-Ha Multi-Strain Female-Focused Probiotic
Lola Daily Foaming Cleansing Wash