ALL women have a natural feminine odour — there is no singular smell for a healthy vagina. And sometimes even healthy vaginas can have a slightly stronger odour than usual. What is not normal, however, according to obstetrician-gynaecologist Dr Robyn Khemlani, is when there's a strong vaginal odour, a “fishy” smell, for instance, that could indicate there is a problem that needs to be investigated.
“Vaginal odour is typically from inflammation of the vaginal area. Inflammation of the vaginal area can occur because of poor hygiene, but it's often a result of an infection in or around the vagina that requires medical assessment and treatment,” Dr Khemlani told All Woman.
She pointed out that generally, if you have vaginal odour without other vaginal symptoms, it's unlikely that your vaginal odour is abnormal, noting that an abnormal vaginal odour that happens because of infection or another problem is usually associated with other vaginal signs and symptoms such as itching, burning, irritation or discharge.
If you are unsure what your vaginal odour means, Dr Khemlani has shared what the particular scent you are experiencing could be.
A fishy odour
A common infection that can cause vaginal odour is an overgrowth of the normal vaginal bacteria to cause bacterial vaginosis (BV). This condition occurs when there is an imbalance in good and bad bacteria in the vagina. This fishy odour is usually strongest following a shower or after sex. Other symptoms associated with BV include a thick white or grey discharge and itching.
Strong, unpleasant odour
Sexually transmitted diseases are also known to cause the vagina to smell. The infection Trichomoniasis is said to give the vagina a strong, unpleasant smell. Another indicator that you might have the infection is a frothy yellow-green vaginal discharge, discomfort during urination, itching, burning and general discomfort.
Failure to thoroughly wash your vaginal area, especially on a hot day, can also cause vaginal odour. “Although sweat helps cool your body, it can also stink. When sweat mingles with fluids in and around your vagina your natural scent may change. The odour may grow stronger if you're sweating a lot, like during the warm months or after exercise,” Dr Khemlani explained.
Sweet, beer-like or sour vaginal odour
Yeast is a common ingredient in many baked goods. It is therefore not so surprising that a woman with a yeast infection may also smell like flour, bread, beer or even cookies. There are times, however, when the vagina might also smell sour. Other symptoms of a yeast infection include burning, intense itching, a cottage cheese-like discharge and sometimes vaginal dryness.
A foul smell from a fistula
A rectovaginal fistula, according to the Mayo Clinic, is an abnormal connection between the lower portion of your large intestine — your rectum — and your vagina. The rare condition, which occurs as a result of a medical condition such as an injury during childbirth, Chron's disease or other inflammatory bowel diseases, complications following surgery in the pelvic region or cancer in the pelvic region, allows faeces to leak into the vagina. Other symptoms linked to the condition include recurrent vaginal or urinary tract infections and foul-smelling vaginal discharge. Once diagnosed, the condition, which has been known to significantly impact intimacy and self-esteem, is generally treated with surgery and antibiotics. Other lifestyle practices such as practising good hygiene, avoiding irritants, drying well and applying moisture barriers may also help to reduce complications of the condition (such as recurrent UTIs), and reducing discomfort.
Strong, bad smell
Vaginal cancers, such as cervical cancer, though rare, can also result in your vagina having an odour. The odour is as a result of one of the common features of these cancers, which is heavy vaginal discharge. The discharge sometimes carries a very strong, bad smell.
Temporary strange smells
Sometimes the vaginal odours are harmless and so it is important that you take note of your body to see if the odour persists, if it's a one-off occasion, or if it leaves altogether.
“Temporary vaginal odour is common, and often resolves on its own. This can be due to a number of factors such hormonal changes such as that which occurs during menopause, or even diet. For example, foods with a strong odour such as garlic or fish can cause odour changes in the vagina. Other times, including when you are menstruating, you might also have a much stronger vaginal odour than you are used to,” Dr Khemlani underscored.
Rotting onions, etc
Failing to wash or change your underwear daily will also cause you to experience odours. Dr Khemlani said that poor hygiene of the labia may also lead to irritation because bacteria may grow in an unbalanced way and lead to an infection of the vagina too.
“You may also experience temporary vaginal odour throughout your menstrual cycle and it may be especially noticeable right after having sex. It's not uncommon to forget a tampon for a few extra hours, but if you forget one for a few extra days, you may smell the result. An old tampon can begin to smell of rotting onions in a few days,” Dr Khemlani said.
These odours, the doctor said, may tempt women to explore feminine products such as douches or vaginal deodorants to decrease odour. However, she cautions women that the products may actually increase irritation.
“If you're concerned about an abnormal or persistent vaginal odour, see your doctor for a vaginal exam especially if you have other signs and symptoms such as itching, burning, irritation or discharge,” Dr Khemlani said.
To minimise or reduce the chances of vaginal odours, Dr Khemlani recommends the following:
•Wash your external genital area during regular baths or showers. Use a very small amount of mild, unscented soap and lots of water.
•Avoid douching. All healthy vaginas contain bacteria and yeast. The normal acidity of your vagina keeps bacteria and yeast in check. Douching can actually upset this delicate balance.
•Change gym clothes after your sweat session is over.
•Avoid wearing wet pool clothes for hours after you get out of the pool.
•Avoid wearing tight-fitting clothes frequently. Tight clothes don't allow for air circulation around the vagina, and that can increase bacteria.
•Wear cotton underwear, not the ones made from synthetic materials like satin, silk, or polyester. Cotton wicks sweat and moisture away from your vagina, which can help prevent odour.