This Is Why Your Vagina Has A Cheesy Smell, According To Experts
Plus, when to see a doctor.
The vagina is a complex bit of bodily machinery. It's used for so much — it's a vehicle for pleasure, it opens up to give birth, it's the exit ramp for the crimson highway every month, it self-cleans, and it can get irritated or infected if given the opportunity. The delicate microbiome that lives in your vagina really throws things out of whack when it's upset, causing unusual smells and discharge. If you find yourself one day wondering why your vagina smells like cheese, you're likely already concerned about the flora in your flower.
According to the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), the vagina is typically dominated by four main bacteria: Lactobacillus iners, L. crispatus, L. gasseri, and L. jensenii, all of which live in a symbiotic relationship with their host. When these are disrupted by outside bacteria or a buildup of acid or alkaline properties in your vagina, problems arise. However, as indicated in a 2021 study in Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology, your vagina's microbiome will shift throughout your life, and even more so with life events like pregnancy and menopause. These shifts are challenging on your body, and therefore make you more likely to experience "vaginal upset," which sounds terrible. Don’t we all just want happy vaginas?
That’s why it can be stressful to notice such a startling smell from downtown. No person wants to think their vagina smells at all, and certainly no one expects it to smell like cheddar. When you're considering why your discharge smells like cheese, just know that you're certainly not alone.
There are tons of forums online for just this question, but many seem to be populated by misinformation and a sense of shame. They cavalierly give recipes for homemade douche and essential oil therapies, but seldom are they backed with any real science, and that's troubling. If people with vaginas are to move past the unnecessary shame and stress, then it’s best to have expert-backed information. Romper asked the pros to weigh in on discharge that smells like cheese and what it means.
Healthy Versus Abnormal Vaginal Odors
First things first, it is totally normal to have vaginal discharge. “This discharge may change cyclically during the menstrual cycle from clear to white and vice versa, especially around ovulation and leading up to the start of menses,” Dr. Kerry-Anne Perkins, D.O., board-certified OB/GYN, tells Romper.
The same goes for vaginal odors: A lot of them are pretty normal. "It's likely not a big deal, even if it feels and smells gross to you,” registered nurse practitioner Amber Mechan tells Romper. As Perkins explains, the vagina often has a musky odor, and there are typical day-to-day things that can impact the smell. “The foods that you eat may also temporarily cause your discharge to smell, such as onions, garlic, and asparagus,” she says.
However, there are some smells that should give you pause, as foul odor may be a sign of infection or more serious diseases. “A fishy odor may be caused by bacterial vaginosis or a yeast infection (less commonly),” Perkins says. “An extremely foul smell may be caused by an infection of the pelvis, such as pelvic inflammatory disease or cervical cancer.” Other foul odors may be caused by an STI, such as trichomoniasis. Mechan also notes that another “truly scary [smell] is a rotten or dead smell, which is likely due to a necrosis [dead cells or tissue] or rotting tampon you've forgotten about."
Mechan adds that lots of people actively avoid treatment for easily treatable problems because they're ashamed to be seen, but doctors and nurse practitioners are not going to be grossed out or shocked. "We wouldn't choose the fields we're in if we were shocked by what bodies do,” she says.
What Causes The Vagina To Smell Like Cheese?
According to Mechan, the cheesy smell is most likely due to a trichomoniasis infection, commonly referred to as "trich," or bacterial vaginosis. "Over three million people are treated for trich each year and it's easy to catch, because often the person who transmits it is asymptomatic and ignorant of their infection," she says. As for bacterial vaginosis, Mechan says it's almost as common as yeast infections, and while some people with vaginas will experience recurrent BV infections, they're usually easy to treat.
Perkins adds that if the cheese-like odor is paired with discharge that may appear as cottage-cheese in texture and consistency, it is likely a yeast infection — although many yeast infections have no smell at all.
If you notice that your discharge is malodorous, it's important to be seen by your provider so you can speed up your recovery and put that worry to rest. And if it’s paired with other symptoms, you should go as soon as you can. “One should see a doctor if you experience fevers, chills, weakness, persistent abnormal discharge, or with abnormal bloody discharge,” Perkins says.
As uncomfortable as it is to strap into the stirrups in the OB/GYN patient room, it's necessary in a situation like this. That way, you can get back to only worrying about cheese at a wine tasting party — not between your legs.
Chen, X., Lu, Y., Chen, T. and Li, R. (2021). The Female Vaginal Microbiome in Health and Bacterial Vaginosis. Front. Cell. Infect. Microbiol. 11:631972. doi: 10.3389/fcimb.2021.631972. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcimb.2021.631972/full
Dr. Kerry-Anne Perkins, D.O., board-certified OB/GYN
Amber Mechan, registered nurse practitioner in Tenafly, New Jersey
This article was originally published on