First and foremost, it's perfectly natural for a healthy vagina to have a mild odor. Despite what you may have heard, it's OK for genitals to smell like genitals!
Don’t expect your vaginal discharge to be odorless, either. Even healthy discharge has a slight smell, but we get that sometimes it can be hard to know what’s normal and what isn’t. While it’s normal for your discharge to have a slight odor, sometimes changes in smell are your body's way of telling you something's going on.
Foul-smelling discharge is most commonly linked to bacterial vaginosis (BV), but there are other reasons why your discharge might smell funky. Keep reading to learn more about the causes of smelly discharge and what you can do about it.
What causes foul-smelling vaginal discharge?
There are a lot of reasons why you might develop a less-than-pleasant scent down there. The vaginal microbiome is a delicate ecosystem of good and bad bacteria, and whenever it’s thrown out of whack — because of infections or your period — the bacteria that live there can start to produce something called “biogenic amines,” which change the smell of your discharge.
Here are some of the most common causes of foul-smelling vaginal discharge or a strong vaginal odor.
BV is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of foul-smelling discharge, and for good reason. BV is a vaginal infection caused by the overgrowth of harmful bacteria in your vaginal microbiome — namely, Gardnerella vaginalis. Thin, watery discharge discharge that has a fishy smell is a telltale sign of BV.
Foul-smelling vaginal discharge after sex is another symptom of BV, but remember that it’s not a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
Sexually transmitted infections
Foul-smelling vaginal discharge in chlamydia typically looks white or yellow, while trichomoniasis generally causes green, foul-smelling vaginal discharge that can sometimes look frothy. Trichomoniasis can also cause a fishy odor similar to BV.
Aerobic vaginitis (AV) is a bacterial infection that causes vaginal discomfort and inflammation. AV can also cause sticky, yellow, or green vaginal discharge that has a “rotten” smell. Although it’s less common than BV, research suggests that 7-12% of women have aerobic vaginitis.
A forgotten tampon
A forgotten tampon can also cause foul-smelling discharge. Wearing a tampon longer than recommended (around four to eight hours) gives bacteria a chance to stick to the surface of the tampon and colonize, causing an infection.
An old tampon can also increase your risk of a rare but serious illness called toxic shock syndrome (TSS). TSS happens when the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes release toxins into your bloodstream. If you notice any signs of TSS, like a high fever, diarrhea, muscle pain, rash on your hands and feet, or headaches, please seek medical attention immediately.
If your smelly discharge is white and clumpy like cottage cheese and is accompanied by burning and vaginal itching, you might have a yeast infection. Yeast infections are caused by an overgrowth of the fungus Candida, which usually lives problem-free in your vagina, gut, mouth, and skin.
Yeast infection discharge can smell, well, yeasty (think beer or bread, but worse) or tangy.
Pelvic inflammatory disease
Smelly discharge can be caused by pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which is a vaginal infection that spreads upwards into your uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. Although PID is a condition in and of itself, it's triggered by something else, such as an untreated STI or BV. Other symptoms of PID include:
- Pelvic pain or discomfort
- Burning or discomfort while peeing (dysuria) or having sex (dyspareunia)
- Bleeding between periods and after sex.
Your hormones fluctuate during your menstrual cycle and before the start of your period, changing the bacteria and acidity levels of your vaginal flora. So, it's totally normal for your discharge to smell stronger throughout your cycle.
During your period, your discharge mixes with blood (which has a higher pH), and that can throw your vaginal microbiome, causing discharge that can sometimes smell strong and a bit metallic. It’s a good idea to see a healthcare provider if you notice a different odor or foul-smelling discharge that doesn’t go away.
While rare, one of the symptoms of cervical cancer is bloody, foul-smelling vaginal discharge. Symptoms of cervical cancer include:
- Bleeding between periods, after sex, or after menopause
- Unusually heavy periods
- Watery, bloody, and heavy vaginal discharge that has a foul smell
- Pelvic pain or pain during sex (dyspareunia).
Causes of a foul-smelling vaginal discharge in pregnancy
Changes in the amount, consistency, and smell of your vaginal discharge are normal during pregnancy. Higher levels of estrogen mean your vaginal microbiome shifts throughout your whole pregnancy, which can affect the way your discharge looks and smells. However, being pregnant doesn't necessarily mean you are immune to vaginal infections. In fact, pregnant women are at higher risk of developing a yeast infection.
If you notice any unusual, strong, or unpleasant odor while pregnant, you should speak to your healthcare provider. It’s important to get tested during pregnancy, as infections can lead to complications that can be prevented with proper treatment.
Treatments for foul-smelling discharge
How to get rid of vaginal smell will depend on the cause. Smelly discharge caused by bacterial infections like BV, aerobic vaginitis, and STIs can be treated with oral or vaginal antibiotics.
If your smelly discharge is a yeast infection symptom, you can treat it with over-the-counter antifungal creams.
Your healthcare provider will be able to diagnose you and prescribe the right treatment. You can also take Evvy’s at-home vaginal microbiome test, which uncovers all bacteria and fungi in your vaginal microbiome with a single swab and includes a free 1:1 coaching call and custom treatment plan for eligible testers.
It's always a good idea to talk to your doctor before seeking any treatment for abnormal vaginal discharge. As tempting as it might be to ignore it or self-diagnose, different infections may require different treatments, and your doctor can help you figure out the best course of action for your specific situation.
Holistic treatments for foul-smelling vaginal discharge
There’s a host of alternative therapies and home remedies touted to treat smelly discharge — such as tea tree oil, garlic, baking soda, and yogurt. However, there’s no real evidence that these treatments are effective.
Some research shows that boric acid inserted into the vagina can be effective in treating certain strains of yeast infections and BV when traditional treatment has failed. Nevertheless, the best thing to do if you notice a change in the way your discharge smells is to visit your healthcare provider.
How to prevent foul-smelling discharge
The best way to prevent abnormal vaginal odor is to look after your reproductive and vaginal health:
- Don’t use feminine hygiene products. Even when they’re marketed as “safe,” scented intimate soaps and vaginal deodorants can affect your vaginal pH. All you need to clean your vulva is warm water.
- Avoid douching. The vagina is self-cleaning, and douches can disrupt the natural balance of your vaginal pH and increase your risk of developing BV and contracting STIs.
- Practice safe sex. Use barrier methods like condoms and dental dams, wash sex toys before and after using them, and use a fresh condom when switching between anal and vaginal penetration. This reduces your risk of contracting an STI or introducing harmful bacteria into your vaginal microbiome.
- Get regular STI check-ups. Most STIs are asymptomatic, meaning you may not have any symptoms or know you have one. So regular screenings are the best way of catching and treating a sexually transmitted infection early.
- Practice good hygiene. Change your pad or tampon every four hours (or more often, depending on your flow), and wipe front to back when you go to the bathroom.
Why am I discharging with a foul smell?
Foul-smelling discharge can be caused by many things, from BV and yeast infection to STIs or an old tampon. You might also notice a more pungent, more unpleasant smell to your discharge when you’re on your period, but that’s no cause for concern. In very rare cases, foul-smelling discharge can be a symptom of cervical cancer. If you notice a foul odor, it’s important to speak to a healthcare provider.
How do I get rid of the odor down there?
It’s normal for healthy vaginas and discharge to have a musky or tangy scent, and there’s no real way to get rid of it completely. It’s always a good idea to practice good personal hygiene and avoid using feminine hygiene products. But if you notice a foul odor, seek medical care, as it’s usually a sign of an infection that can be treated.
Why does my discharge smell bad but no infection?
Discharge consists of cervical mucus, bacteria, and old vaginal cells — it’s normal if it doesn’t smell like roses! The smell of discharge can also fluctuate throughout your menstrual cycle, after having sex, or after an intensely sweaty workout. Smelly discharge isn’t always cause for concern, but if it shows up out of nowhere or persists for several days, it’s best to stay on the safe side and call your doctor.