Vaginal odor refers to any abnormal odor originating from the vaginal area. The odor is typically described as a “fishy” smell. Aside from a noticeable odor, symptoms may include an unusual vaginal discharge, itching and irritation. Vaginal odor can be a personal annoyance and an embarrassment in certain social and intimate settings. Understanding the causes of such odors can make it easier to determine when medical attention is necessary and when other remedies are likely to be effective.
Common Causes of Vaginal Odor
Some vaginal odor is normal. It becomes an issue when normally occurring bacteria become overly active. This overgrowth, termed bacterial vaginosis, is the most common cause of vaginal odor. Some sexually transmitted diseases may also result in vaginal odor. While food doesn’t directly cause strong vaginal odors, certain foods may slightly affect the scent of vaginal secretions. A noticeable odor, however, is not likely from diet alone. While some odors disappear naturally, persistent odors generally require medical attention. Additional causes may include:
- A forgotten tampon
- Poor hygiene
- Vaginal yeast infection
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
Less Common Causes of Vaginal Odor
In some cases, the cause of vaginal odor is more uncommon. If recommended treatments aren't effective, it's important to seek medical attention to determine the true cause of the condition. The actual cause of vaginal odor may be a more serious condition that needs to be treated first. For instance, an abnormal opening between the rectum and vagina may cause feces to leak into the vagina, resulting in a noticeable odor. Some other less common causes of vaginal odor include:
- Vaginal cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Recto-vaginal fistula
Minimizing Vaginal Odor
If vaginal odor appears only occasionally, there are certain steps that can be taken to minimize the odor. You don't want to simply mask the odor, since this doesn't nothing to eliminate the actual odor. Start by using mild, unscented soap to wash the genital area when taking a bath or shower. It's normal to have some bacteria in a healthy vagina, so douching isn't always necessary. In fact, excessive douching can upset the normal acidity of the vagina. Some natural ways to minimize vaginal odor include:
- Drinking more water – Drinking water on a regular basis can help flush toxins out of a woman's body that may be causing certain odors.
- Yogurt – Lactobacillus found in yogurt can help adjust the pH balance in the vagina, which may eliminate or reduce odors. Soaking a tampon in plain yogurt and thoroughly washing the area afterwards may also be effective.
- White vinegar – A white vinegar rinse may restore pH levels to normal. Lukewarm water tends to work better than cold water. Apple cider vinegar can also have beneficial results since it has natural anti-bacterial properties.
- Garlic – Whether consumed in raw or cooked form, garlic can get rid of bad bacteria. Garlic cloves served in a salad can also be effective.
- Baking soda – Just a tablespoon of baking soda mixed with warm water can help restore pH levels. Another method is to add about half a cup of baking soda to a warm bath for about twenty minutes.
- Citrus fruits – Citrus fruits can be used to naturally fight vaginal infections. The vitamin C found in citrus fruits is a natural immune system booster. Grapes, oranges, sweet lime, lemons and grapefruits are just some of the many citrus fruits that can help prevent or eliminate vaginal and urinary tract infections.
Note: Certain “home remedies” aren't recommended for vaginal odors that occur during pregnancy.
When to See a Doctor
A change in discharge is usually the first sign of a problem. Certain changes in vaginal odor may be related to a woman's menstrual cycle, sexual activity, birth control methods, the onset of menopause, pregnancy and the natural aging process. A change in diet or drinking more water may be helpful, but not if the there is another underlying cause of the offensive scent. Generally, a doctor should be consulted when the following signs and symptoms occur:
- Persistent odor
- Unusual discharge
- Burning with urination
- Persistent pelvic pain
- Pain or bleeding during sex
Treatments for Vaginal Odor
Treatment of vaginal odor depends on the cause of the problem, the severity of symptoms and a woman's overall health. Factors such as age and any medications being taken are also considered when narrowing down effective treatments. Since some of the symptoms associated with vaginal odor could be signs of other more serious conditions, a blood test and medical examination is often necessary to determine if another condition is causing the odor. A doctor typically checks for STDs and other possible medical causes of vaginal odor such as a yeast infection or cervical cancer. If these sources are eliminated, recommendations are typically made for certain vaginal cleanses and general hygiene methods.
Preventing Vaginal Odors and Infections
Vaginal odors and infections can often occur with little or no warning. While occasional odors and minor infections are usually harmless, there are certain steps that can be taken to prevent vaginal odors and infections, or at least reduce the likelihood that such infections, discharges or odors will be serious. Some of these methods include:
• Cotton panties – Wearing cotton panties allows the genital area to breathe, which reduces the odds of infection. Wearing panties during the day only can further increased circulation and the risk of minor irritations that may cause odors.
• Avoid vaginal douches – There is no medical reason to use vaginal douches. They often cause an imbalance in natural secretions.
• Avoid sexual intercourse during treatments – Sexual intercourse should be avoided if medical treatments such as medications are prescribed to clear up an infection. Petroleum jelly or oils should not be used as lubricants since they provide an environment conducive to bacteria growth.
• Avoid tight-fitting clothes for long periods of time – Tight fitting clothing can create a warm environment where bacteria is likely to thrive. Clothing such as tight jeans and bathing suits should be worn for short durations of time only.