Concerned that your vagina smells? Today, we hear from Dr Nina Brochmann and medic Ellen Stokken Dahl, co-authors of The Wonder Down Under, about what’s normal and what’s not when it comes to the scent of a healthy vagina.
Vagina smell is a common worry, right?
“A lot of women we’ve spoken to are anxious about whether they smell ‘normal’ down there. They say they worry whether colleagues can detect the smell of their vaginas when they’re sitting side by side at a meeting, or refuse to let their sex partners go down on them in case they find their scent a turn-off.
So, how should my vagina smell?
“Healthy genitals do smell. That’s just the way it is. Fresh discharge has a mildly acidic smell and taste because it contains lactic acid. What’s more, our vulva and groin are amply equipped with sweat glands. Tight trousers, knickers made of synthetic fabric and crossed legs create a nice, warm environment between our legs. Over the course of a long day, you will therefore sweat a great deal there, too. The combination of an entire day’s worth of discharge and sweat, together with a dash of residual urine, creates a characteristic odour. It doesn’t exactly smell bad, but it certainly can smell pretty intense.”
Why does my vagina smell stronger when I’ve got my period?
“The smell and quantity of discharge can vary according to what phase you’re at in your menstrual cycle. Our sex hormones seem to influence our body’s ability to rid itself of an evil-smelling substance called trimethylamine, which is what can cause that classic smell of rotten fish. It has been observed that among healthy women, the body has 60–70% less capacity to rid itself of this substance just before and during menstruation. That could explain why even healthy women may find their genitals give off a fishy smell around the time of their period.”
Can I do anything to help how it smells?
“The scent of our genitals is one of our most intimate odours. As you’ll have gathered, it’s quite normal for them to smell a bit, especially at the end of a long day; but as a rule, they shouldn’t smell ‘bad’, if you get what we mean. A bad smell may be a sign of infection and is a good reason to pay a visit to your doctor.
"If you’ve been for a check-up and your odour problems aren’t caused by an infection, it may be a good idea to wear loose trousers or skirts, change your underwear over the course of the day and take proper (but not excessive!) care of your hygiene."
Ok, when should I worry about the smell?
“A copious, runny discharge that is greyish-white with a fishy smell can be a sign of bacterial vaginosis. The truth is that healthy genitals shouldn’t smell fishy, but BV is to blame for the fact that many do.
“BV is caused by an imbalance of the normal genital flora. There is a reduction in the protective lactic-acid bacteria, while the other types of bacteria that cause trouble in the environment flourish. The lactic-acid bacteria keep your vagina acidic, and acidic is good. When you have BV, your vagina becomes a little less acidic, in other words, more alkaline. That’s why pH is one of the things your doctor may measure when you have genital problems to check whether you have BV.
“There is no single bacteria that’s solely responsible for BV: it’s a cocktail of different kinds. Some of them usually live in the vagina or in other areas of the body as part of your normal flora. Problems follow if they have moved, or there are too many of them.
“In addition to the characteristic smell, which is described as rotten fish, women with BV have heavier-than-normal discharge. Many describe a greyish, very runny discharge, and need to change their underwear several times a day. The smell can be so strong that it can be detected through clothes. Many women experience a sporadic fishy smell or a worsening of the fishy smell after vaginal intercourse or during and after menstruation. Both blood and sperm are more alkaline than the environment in the vagina and will therefore increase the fishy smell.
“Perhaps this sounds pretty easy to recognise, but as with thrush, you won’t necessarily identify BV by its symptoms. BV can also cause itching as well as other symptoms that make you think it’s thrush.
“Bacterial vaginosis doesn’t mean that your genitals are dirty, although that’s what a lot of people think when they detect the bad smell. If you try to get rid of the problem by washing you’ll only make matters worse by rinsing away the good bacteria that keep your vagina acidic. BV can pass of its own accord, but it’s best to get medical treatment. Since BV is caused by bacteria, a course of antibiotics or antibacterial treatments are called for.
“The moral is that you must visit your doctor for a check-up if your genitals are different from normal. Notice a change in discharge, itching or a stinging sensation? Then go to your doctor.”