Vaginal Odor

By Ashley Henshaw. May 7th 2016

Many women have experienced vaginal odor at one time or another, but the problem many of these women experience is not knowing what the cause of the odor is. This condition can be quite uncomfortable or embarrassing, but fortunately there are a few options for treatment that can help. Learn more about what causes vaginal odor and how to prevent it.


Vaginal odor is not just any odor that originates from the vagina. In fact, many women will notice that their vagina has a slight scent that may change throughout their cycle. Vaginal odor, on the other hand, refers to a specifically abnormal smell coming from the vagina. In many cases, the odor is described as “fishy,” but other odors may occur as well.

Symptoms Associated With Vaginal Odor

Vaginal odor is characterized by an abnormal odor originating from the vagina. This smell is often described as “fishy.” However, there are often other symptoms that accompany vaginal odor, some of which can help determine the cause of the unusual smell. The most common symptoms associated with vaginal odor include:

  • Vaginal itching
  • Vaginal discharge
  • Vaginal irritation

Causes And Risk Factors

There are numerous possible causes for vaginal odor. Some of these causes include:

  • Bacterial vaginosis: This is the most common cause of vaginal odor. This condition occurs when there is an overgrowth of normally occurring vaginal bacteria. Women with bacterial vaginosis may notice other symptoms besides vaginal odor, such as vaginal itching, a thin, grayish vaginal discharge, pain during intercourse or a burning sensation when urinating.
  • Sexually transmitted diseases: A few STDs can lead to vaginal odor, including Chlamydia, trichomoniasis and gonorrhea.
  • Tampons: When a tampon is retained for too long or forgotten about after being inserted, vaginal odor may result. It’s critical that women not let this happen since leaving a tampon in for too long may also result in toxic shock syndrome (TSS), which can be fatal.
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease: Also referred to as simply PID, this condition occurs when sexually transmitted bacteria travels from the vagina to the uterus and the upper genital tract. Other symptoms besides vaginal odor may include pain in the lower abdomen, irregular menstrual bleeding, painful urination, heavy vaginal discharge, fever, fatigue, diarrhea and vomiting.
  • Poor hygiene: Women who practice poor hygiene may find that they experience vaginal odor. In addition to preventing vaginal odor, good hygiene is also helpful for preventing urinary tract infections.
  • Yeast infection: This is a relatively common condition among women – about 3 out of 4 women experience a yeast infection at some point. Yeast infections are caused by an imbalance in the levels of yeast and bacteria in the vagina. Other common symptoms include vaginal itching, vaginal burning, redness and swelling of the vulva and a thick, white discharge with a cottage cheese appearance.
  • Rectovaginal fistula: One of the less common causes of vaginal odor is a rectovaginal fistula, which is an abnormal opening between the rectum and vagina. This opening may allow the contents of the bowels to leak into the vagina or allow stool, pus or gas to pass from the vagina. Other symptoms include irritation or pain in the vaginal area, recurrent vaginal or urinary tract infections or pain during intercourse. Most rectovaginal fistulas have to be repaired surgically.
  • Cancer: Vaginal cancer and cervical cancer may both cause vaginal odor. These are much less common causes of vaginal odor compared to the other causes listed above.


Due to the nature of some of the more common causes of vaginal odor, women can take the following steps in order to help prevent vaginal odor from occurring:

  1. Practice good hygiene. Regularly wash the outside of your vagina with warm water and mild soap to help prevent vaginal odor.
  2. Avoid scented products. When it comes to products that will be used in and around your vagina, stay away from anything scented that may create irritation. That includes tampons, pads, powders and sprays.
  3. Don’t douche. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists do not recommend cleaning the vagina by douching. A healthy vagina will clean itself be naturally creating a mucous that washes away vaginal discharge, blood and semen.
  4. Prevent STDs. Avoid getting an STD by using protection during intercourse. Your risk of getting an STD also decreases dramatically if you are in a monogamous relationship with someone who is free of STDs.


The treatment for vaginal odor varies widely depending on the cause of the odor. The most common cause of vaginal odor – bacterial vaginosis – is typically treated with medication. In general, a treatment plan will focus on resolving the underlying condition causing the odor.

It’s important to see your doctor right away if you notice any unusual vaginal odor. A simple examination can often determine the cause of the odor and most treatments are relatively simple.


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