Most of the time, the vagina simply exists without much fanfare or drama. It just is. At other times, however, it creates some confounding questions about your health. For instance, um... Why does my vagina smell like onions? If you’ve found yourself asking questions about your vaginal health, you’re not alone, and there are many things that could cause this strange phenomenon, from food to infections.
What is the “normal” smell down there, anyway? Nobody should expect the vagina to smell like a bouquet of roses. (And if it does, you might want to get that checked out.) “The key is to know what your ‘normal’ smells like,” board-certified OB/GYN Dr. Sherry Ross, M.D. tells Romper. “All of us with a vagina usually know that awkward feeling if a new and strange smell comes our way.”
Ross explains that your vagina’s smell and taste comes mostly from the fluids inside of it and also depends on your pH levels. “The taste is not quite sour, but somewhat astringent, since the vagina is normally acidic,” she says. “Some describe the taste as being metallic due to the high levels of acidity.”
The pH balance of the vagina is sensitive to environmental changes and can be easily thrown off by external factors. “Anything that affects this delicate balance will affect the smell, type of discharge, and its consistency,” Ross tells Romper. So, if you’re caught in the “my discharge smells like onions” debacle, there’s a good chance your pH is unhappy. To get to the bottom of your scent mystery, here are some of the top reasons your vagina might smell like onions.
For starters, it could simply be a case of what you’ve been munching on lately. “It’s well-known that ‘you are what you eat,’ especially as it relates to your vaginal odor and hormonal balance,” Ross tells Romper. There are certain foods that affect your vaginal health, for the better or worse. For instance, eating a lot of onions may result in urine and discharge that smells strongly of onion. If you've ever chopped an onion, only to have its scent linger on your hands for days afterward, you know how persistent and pervasive this plant's smell can be. Avoiding onions for a few days and drinking lots of water might help dissipate the smell.
“The good news is that there are foods that don’t disrupt the delicate pH balance and can combat offensive odors and actually add a sweet smell or taste to the vagina,” Ross says. “[The] best foods for the vagina include fresh fruits (especially pineapple!), fruit juices, whole grains, Greek yogurt, and drinking plenty of water.” Then, there are the foods that have been known to cause “notably offensive odor,” according to Ross, which includes things like onions, garlic, mint, curry, turmeric, red meat, milk, blue cheese, fermented foods, and asparagus, to name a few.
On the other hand, a medical issue could also be at play. Some infections produce pungent vaginal discharge. “Bacterial vaginosis, also known as BV, and yeast, are common types of vaginal infection causing an inflamed, malodorous, and bothered vagina,” Ross tells Romper. When there’s an overgrowth of harmful bacteria or yeast, the delicate pH of the vagina is disrupted.
Things like new sexual partners, unprotected sex, douching, and taking certain antibiotics can increase your risk of a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis. According to a 2019 Reproductive Health study, a diet that’s low in betaine, a compound that’s abundant in foods like wheat germ or bran, spinach, and seafood, may correlate to an increased risk of BV. So, add those to the list of possible vagina-happy foods.
Symptoms like itching, burning, redness, swelling, and a fishy smelling gray or green discharge could be telling you that you’ve got BV, Ross tells Romper. Getting the correct diagnosis and treatment from a doctor should help the strong odor, and any other symptoms of irritation, clear up within a few days.
You Lost A Tampon
Nobody sets out with a goal to leave a tampon in too long or forget about it all together, but it happens. “So many times, when it comes to a ‘lost tampon,’ you will know that something is just not right down there,” Ross tells Romper. “You may notice a watery-brown discharge with a foul, rotten meat and pungent odor,” she says. It’s very possible that this foul smell — one you might have taken as “onion-y” — is really the rotten scent of a forgotten tampon. This is different from a yeast infection because there will be no itching or cottage cheese-like discharge. You can also differentiate this from a bacterial infection by the color of the discharge and the lack of a “fishy” smell, according to Ross.
Everything from wearing tight, unbreathable fabrics to everyday exercise can make the vaginal area more prone to strong smells. “Wearing clean sportswear to allow your skin to breathe is an easy remedy in lessening the sweat, bacterial, and foul odor buildup while working out,” Ross says. “Feminine hygiene wipes work well for post-workout vaginal care to prevent infections and odors.”
This does not mean reaching for those highly fragranced, floral-scented feminine sprays. “Using products for the vulva and vagina that are not specifically formulated for the vulva’s delicate pH could potentially lead to yeast and bacterial infections and urinary tract infection,” Ross warns. “Given the sensitivity of the vagina, unfriendly chemicals from fragrant soaps, bubble bath liquids, bath salts, detergents, and other common offenders disrupt the delicate acidic pH balance allowing bacteria and yeast to overgrow.”
“Everyday unsuspecting feminine rituals can disrupt the pH balance and irritate all areas of the vagina,” Ross says. Common irritants that might be flying under your radar include things like fabric softeners, dryer sheets, sanitary wipes, douching, scented lubricants or warming gels, nylon underwear or bathing suits, rubber products like diaphragms and condoms, saliva, semen, spermicides, and tampons or deodorant pads. Not that every one of these items will cause you irritation, but if things are awry down there, this list is a good place to start your investigation. “Medications including the birth control pill, Accutane, allergy and cold medications and certain antidepressants are common contributors to vaginal dryness,” Ross adds. “Caffeine and alcohol can also be added to the list of offensive culprits.”
When To See A Doctor
“Women tend to know when something is off when it comes to vaginal odors and infections,” Ross says. “A fishy or yeast-like smell is noticeable.” Other indicators that something is just not right include itching, swelling, tenderness, dryness, redness, or rash. You know your vagina better than anyone, so if you’re experiencing any symptoms that are unusual for you, Ross recommends seeking medical attention. “Seeing a healthcare provider is always a good idea when things seem persistent or different,” she advises. “Trust your instincts!”
Tuddenham, S., Ghanem, K.G., Caulfield, L.E. et al. Associations between dietary micronutrient intake and molecular-Bacterial Vaginosis. Reprod Health 16, 151 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12978-019-0814-6
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