Why Does My Vagina Smell Like Sweat?

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Like other parts of the body, your vagina has a natural odor. It can vary throughout the menstrual cycle, after sex and during pregnancy or other times when hormones change.

A temporary, light odor is normal and usually won’t cause any issues. But if the scent is strong or lasting, it could be a sign of a problem.

Sweat Glands

Everyone sweats, and it’s a normal way to cool down. But when sweat lands on the delicate tissues around your vulva, it can leave behind an unpleasant odor. Often, this is caused by exercise or non-breathable knickers. If you’re sweating excessively in the groin area, talk to your doctor. It could be a sign of hyperhidrosis, a condition that can lead to skin problems and infections like bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections.

The odor produced by your vulva is normally musky, and it changes throughout the menstrual cycle. But a strong, unfamiliar odor that smells like rotting fish may be a sign of an infection, particularly if it’s accompanied by pain, itching or vaginal discharge. In this case, you should see your OB/GYN to rule out a sexually transmitted infection like gonorrhea or chlamydia.

You can control sweat and odor by bathing daily with a mild soap or body wash and by changing your underwear to ones that breathe, like cotton. You can also try a cornstarch-based powder that absorbs moisture, says Dr. Parks. However, you should never put deodorant or antiperspirant “down there” because it can disrupt the delicate balance of bacteria in and around your vulva, which can increase the risk of infection. Also, be careful when using products that may come into contact with your vulva (such as talcum powder) because it can cause an allergic reaction.

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Bacteria

Every woman has a natural vaginal scent, which may change throughout her menstrual cycle. If that scent becomes stronger, or if it’s accompanied by other symptoms like itching or pain, see a doctor for an examination. It could be a sign of an infection, or even a sexually transmitted disease such as trichomoniasis.

While your body does have sweat glands in the external vulva and bikini area, they are different from those found in the armpits. Eccrine glands cover the entire surface of your skin and secrete watery sweat that doesn’t have an odor, but apocrine glands—the same kind that hang out in your armpits—are concentrated on the crotch area, and produce odor when they perspire.

When the apocrine glands combine with a layer of bacteria that’s accumulated on the skin, it can produce an unpleasant scent. That’s why it’s important to wash your crotch area with a mild, non-drying soap, and wear loose, comfortable clothing that allows your skin to breathe.

Another thing that can cause a bad smell is urine, which can create a chemical-like scent when it mixes with the apocrine glands’ secretions. This could be a sign of urinary tract infections, such as bacterial vaginosis (which also has a fishy or musty odor), and/or sexually transmitted diseases such as trichomoniasis. If the odor is strong and persistent, or if it’s paired with other symptoms, consult your ob-gyn.

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Infections

Vaginas are not intended to smell like roses, but a funky odor can be a sign that something is wrong. Yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis (BV), and other conditions can change the bacteria levels in the area, leading to an unpleasant scent. A yeast infection may also cause a thick, clumpy discharge that some women describe as smelling like cottage cheese. If you have this symptom, you should make an appointment with your doctor to see about antibiotics.

A tangy or fermented smell can be normal and is associated with your healthy bacterial flora, including “friendly” bacteria called lactobacilli. These bacteria produce lactic acid and hydrogen peroxide, which help keep harmful bacteria to a minimum. If the odor is strong and persistent, you may have an overgrowth of candida, a type of yeast that causes itching and dryness in the vulva. BV can also cause a fishy odor and is usually caused by an overgrowth of certain bacteria. It can also be triggered by sex and can cause light bleeding.

A copper or metallic smell is a common one that may mean you have period blood on your vulva, or could be a sign of a sexually transmitted disease such as trichomonas vaginalis (Trich). A musty or moldy odor can be a sign of a rectovaginal fistula, a rare condition that occurs when the opening between the rectum and vulva gets infected with fecal matter.

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Hygiene

All women have a normal scent that’s unique to them and may vary throughout the menstrual cycle. If this odor changes or seems stronger, it could be an indication of an infection or other problem.

Pubic hair acts like a sponge, soaking up sweat and oil from the skin beneath it. When this sweat mixes with bacteria, it can produce an odor. Keeping the area clean with regular washing with unscented soap can help prevent this odor. Also, wearing loose-fitting clothes that allow the area to breathe is a good idea. Cotton underwear and even some workout clothing made of manmade materials that wick away sweat are good choices.

It’s a good idea to avoid using scented deodorants or feminine sprays, which can interfere with the delicate balance of bacteria that keeps the vulva and groin skin healthy. These products can also cause yeast infections.

It’s important to know that most of the time, vaginal odor is completely normal. If your odor smells different or gets worse, make an appointment with your health care provider. A physical exam can determine whether your odor is due to an infection that needs treatment, such as bacterial vaginosis or trichomonas. If the infection is treatable, the odor will go away. If not, your health care provider can give you advice on how to manage the odor.

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