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Why Does Your Vagina Smell Sour? Experts Break It Down

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Whether it’s the smell of roses or vanilla, everybody has their own signature scent — even for down there. But sometimes, all it takes is one whiff to know that something has gone wrong with your girly parts. If you’re wondering why your vagina smells sour, there could be a few reasons why — and all are fixable.

When it comes to vaginas, there is no one-scent-fits-all. In fact, every vag smells differently depending on its owner. The interesting thing is that while a vagina can and should have an odor, it’s probably a very slight one, the Mayo Clinic reported. But unless there’s a real issue (like an infection), your vagina itself doesn’t really emit much of an odor — it’s the surrounding areas that do, OB/GYN Dr. Kim Langdon, MD tells Romper. “Rather, the external skin of the vulva can become contaminated with bacteria and over time, it reacts with secretions or vaginal discharge,” she explains. “When there are synthetic fragrances or other chemicals on the skin of the vulva, the skin bacteria reacts with it to create an odor.”

Still, there might be times when it seems like there’s a scent coming straight from the center of everything. So if you’re sniffing something slightly stinky, here are some reasons why.

You Left A Tampon In

As careful as you are to take out your tampons on the reg, you might still slip up and forget to swap it out — or worse, think that you did and insert another one in there. And if that’s the case, you could smell something akin to a stench, Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, MD, Clinical Professor of OB/GYN at Yale says. “A forgotten tampon can have a really foul smell, like really dead fish,” she tells Romper in an email. Get the tampon out as soon as you remember, but you might need to take it another step further to get rid of the smell. “This is one of the few instances that a douche can be helpful (just some vinegar and water) to help clear things out,” Dr. Minkin advises.

You Have Vaginitis

You might have moments when your vagina feels uncomfortable due to using a new soap or a fragrance. And then, there’s your vagine’s arch enemy, vaginitis. In the study, “Vaginitis in Nonpregnant Patients,” vaginitis is explained as either an infection or inflammation of your lady parts. It causes itching, burning, discharge, and (you guessed it), a fishy odor. Depending on the type of vaginitis you have, you might be prescribed an over-the-counter cream, an antibiotic, or a cream to help cool off your vagina and calm it down, the Mayo Clinic reported.

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Your Lady Parts Are Sweaty

Since your vagina itself is inside the body, it doesn’t produce sweat. But the surrounding areas (think your crotch, legs, butt) sure do. And that’s why you might think it’s your vagina that’s smelling sour when it’s actually your nether regions. “Sweat can definitely cause odor that will affect the scent of the area,” explains Dr. Langdon. Thankfully, this is a simple fix — a shower should be sufficient to reduce the smell in the area.

You Might Have Bacterial Vaginosis

Not to be confused with its wicked stepsister, vaginitis, bacterial vaginosis (BV) is an infection of the vagina, Dr. Minkin explains. Not only does it cause your girly bits to smell stanky, but it can be troubling to your health, too. “What is bad about BV is that it can lead to a higher risk of acquiring and getting sick with STIs like gonorrhea and chlamydia,” Dr. Minkin explains. Apart from unpleasant odors, BV can be dangerous if you’re pregnant. The study, “Association between preterm delivery and bacterial vaginosis with or without treatment” found that there is a greater risk of going into preterm labor if you have BV.

How does it happen in the first place? Dr. Minkin explains: “The normal vagina has a significantly acidic pH (neutral pH is 7; a healthy vagina will have a pH of 3.5 to 4.5 or so),” she says. “If a woman's vagina starts becoming more basic, it may lead to the growth of nastier bacteria which will create an environment that favors the growth of what we call anaerobic bacteria.” And this is what leads to bacterial vaginosis — and a fishy odor.

If you are concerned about the smell coming from down there, you can always consult with your OB/GYN. An exam can tell you if you have an infection that requires medication. Another option, according to Dr. Minkin: “You can use an over the counter product called RepHresh which will help restore a better pH balance in your vagina,” she says. “And some women opt to use an oral product like Pro-B, which contains lots of the ‘good guy’ bacteria of the vagina, the good lactobacilli which make up the good vaginal flora.”

Your vagina is always going to have some sort of smell. Most are manageable, but foul odors like fish or sulfur (like a rotten egg) should be a cause for concern — and warrant a call to your doctor.

Studies cited:

Vaginitis in Nonpregnant Patients” 2020.

Shimaoka, M., Yo, Y., Doh, K., Kotani, Y., Suzuki, A., Tsuji, I., Mandai, M., Matsumura, N.

"Association between preterm delivery and bacterial vaginosis with or without treatment" 2019.

Experts:

Dr. Kim Langdon, MD, an OB/GYN

Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, MD, Clinical Professor of OB/GYN at Yale

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