Ever notice a scent down there that doesn’t quite seem right? While new smells and changes in your lubrication should always be checked out by your doctor, the majority of the time, it’s just nothing to worry about.
Your vulva is home to an ecosystem that can change scents as your hormone levels shift, the food you eat, or when you last had sex. Here’s what some of those scents might mean.
1. Apocrine Sweat Glands
Your vulva is home to an ecosystem of living microorganisms that keep you healthy, ward off infection, and even help with lubrication. And, like any other body part, it’s going to have its own unique smell. Whether it’s musky or reminiscent of garden soil, vaginal odor is completely normal—and it’s an important signal that everything is working as it should be!
Just like sweat or urine, your vulva’s scent can change over time. This is because diet, the menstrual cycle, hormones, hygiene, and sexual activity all play a role in your natural odor. A drastic change, however, could be a sign of something more serious.
If you notice a strong, earthy odor that reminds you of marijuana, it’s likely a result of the apocrine glands in your inner thighs, bikini area, and butt. These glands are controlled by sex hormones and only become active at puberty. They secrete a viscous fluid that’s odorless at first but develops an odor when it comes into contact with bacteria.
Another common cause of this weed-like smell is a yeast infection (aka trichomoniasis). If you have symptoms of this condition, including thick white discharge, itchiness in the vulva, or a painful sensation when urinating, see your doctor for a diagnosis and prescription medication. You’ll want to avoid douches and other over-the-counter products that can actually make trichomoniasis worse!
2. Vaginal Bacteria
Everyone has body odor, and the area of skin around your vulva is no exception. The area may smell musky or sweaty, and the odor can vary during your menstrual cycle, pregnancy or after exercise. If the odor is intense, it may be due to period blood or a yeast infection (bacterial vaginosis or trichomoniasis).
Your vagina contains a number of healthy bacteria that form a layer of protection and inhibit other organisms. This bacterial flora helps to keep the pH level in your vagina on the acidic side, which prevents infections that could cause an unpleasant odor. The bacteria also produce lactic acid and hydrogen peroxide to help keep unhealthy microorganisms at bay. The odor associated with these bacteria is often described as sweet, fermented or sour.
Certain types of bacteria can also cause a fishy or musty odor. These include bacteria from the anus or urethra that come into contact with your vagina during urination and bowel movements, as well as Gardnerella vaginalis, a sexually transmitted infection that causes itching, pain and discharge that looks like cottage cheese.
You can decrease these odors by wiping from front to back after using the restroom, and by avoiding douches, scented soaps and feminine hygiene products that disturb the normal balance of your vaginal bacteria. You should also use a condom during sex and carefully clean sex toys to avoid the spread of these organisms.
3. Emotional Stress
Every woman’s vulva has a natural scent and that’s totally normal. But when your down-there odor smells off or changes, it may be time to take a whiff and see what’s going on. If the smell is accompanied by pain, itching or discharge, see a doctor who’s skilled in women’s health right away.
Earthy or musky vaginal odor can be due to sweating, but it’s also a sign of stress or anxiety. It’s a way for the body to alert others that something is up, like if there’s a potential predator nearby or you’re under attack. Try to manage your stress levels and see if the odor subsides.
Another common scent in the vulva is “tangy” or fermented, similar to the odor of probiotic yogurt or sour beer. This is typically nothing to worry about as it’s caused by the same bacteria that help keep your vagina’s naturally acidic environment balanced.
However, a rotten-vegetable-like smell can be a sign of bacterial vaginosis (also known as yeast infections), which should never be ignored. If a rotten-vegetable-like odor is accompanied by itching, itchy discharge and/or a frothy white or yellow-white vaginal discharge, don’t delay in getting it checked out. Leaving a yeast infection untreated can lead to serious long-term reproductive problems, including infertility.
A fishy odor in the vagina could indicate a sexually transmitted infection, such as bacterial vaginosis. Other symptoms include a thick, grey or white discharge and itchiness in the vulva. If you suspect this smell, make an appointment with your healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis and antibiotics.
Musky smells can also be caused by non-breathable underwear and excessive sweating during exercise. This type of odor typically clears up after showering with water or soap.
If you’re noticing a sweet or fruity odor in the vagina, it may be a sign of diabetes. This odor can also be accompanied by a yellowish, foamy discharge and other symptoms, such as itching or pain in the vulva or legs.
Yeast infections can also cause an unpleasant scent, which is reminiscent of bread or pizza dough. If you’re experiencing any of the other signs of a yeast infection (thick, white discharge, itchy vulva) or have recently had sex, get in touch with your doctor for a diagnosis and treatment.
While it might feel counterintuitive, not all smells in the vulva are indicative of something wrong. Just like the way your urine or sweat can change based on what you’ve eaten or whether you’ve been exercising, your vaginal odor fluctuates regularly and in most cases, it’s completely normal. But if you’re concerned about an unusual scent or any other changes to your body, consult with a licensed health care professional — that might include your family doctor, OB/GYN, nurse practitioner, or midwife who specializes in women’s health.