Vaginas have a scent — there's no way around it. And to be conscious of your own is completely normal. In fact, it's healthy to pay attention to the way your vagina smells, so you can keep track of your genital health. But it can lead you to wonder a lot of questions about your vagina’s scent. For one, Why does my vagina smell like urine? Well, it could be a few things.
It can sometimes be difficult to determine between “normal” and “abnormal” vaginal discharge because the change can be so subtle. “It is often easier to tell abnormal smells if there has been a drastic change in your vaginal smell,” board-certified OB/GYN Dr. Kerry-Anne Perkins, M.D., tells Romper. “For instance, if you remove your clothing and immediately smell a strong odor.” The vagina has up to 2,100 different odors, according to a 1975 German study in the Archives of Gynecology. Most of the time, however, your discharge shouldn't have a particularly strong or unusual smell or color. If this is the case, it’s probably time to head to the doctor.
Any change in your genital health is a good sign you should be examined by a professional. But as for why your vagina could smell like urine in particular, there are several possibilities.
A urine-like smell in your vagina could come from excessive perspiration or leaking urine, and could it even be linked to your pelvic floor muscles. “Vaginal odor may be due to sweating, due to ammonia-like substances being released from a weak bladder (due to prolapse or weakened pelvic floor muscles) that may occur without a person’s awareness,” Perkins explains.
Bacterial Vaginosis Or Menstruation
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is another likely contender — it’s one of the most common vaginal infections in premenopausal women. “It may present with a change in vaginal discharge (thin, gray discharge), or a vaginal odor (fishy), or both,” Perkins explains. “Because BV is so common, if you have a new vaginal odor and have not experienced a significant change in your discharge, the most common cause of this odor is BV.” While it may not be a urine-like smell, exactly, it can contribute to an unusual-smelling vagina and is worth investigating further.
BV happens when there is an overgrowth of one or more bacteria in your vaginal area. “Each person may have a different degree of discharge at baseline,” Perkins continues. This means you may experience vaginal symptoms of infection differently than someone else.
Bacterial vaginosis is a form of vaginitis, inflammation of the vagina characterized by itching, discharge, and pain. Normally there are both good and bad bacteria located in the vagina, but when the delicate balance is disrupted, vaginitis can ensue. “The flora of the vagina is composed of many different types of bacteria,” notes Perkins. “Some bacteria are good and act as what I consider the security guards of the vagina. They protect the vagina, provide the right level of acidity, and ward against bad bacteria.” When there is an overgrowth of the bad bacteria, the vagina’s pH gets off balance and often requires antibiotics to bring back the normal level of acidity.
Certain circumstances can increase a person’s risk of getting BV. The top contenders? Unprotected sex, new sexual partners, and even some antibiotics. And bad news if you practice internal cleansing like douching, as this can also increase your risk of BV, according to a 2018 International Journal of Microbiology study.
It’s also common for someone’s menstrual cycle to be the culprit in a change of vaginal scent. “The menstrual cycle may disrupt a person’s vaginal pH level,” Perkins explains. “This is due to blood having a pH that is more basic (neutral on the pH scale). When this blood passes through the vagina, the vaginal pH rises, causing it to become less acidic.” A less acidic vagina is at higher risk of contracting STIs and getting bacterial infections — both of which can also cause a change in your vagina’s smell. Again, it may or may not be a distinctly urine-like scent, but either way, it’s probably worth seeing a professional.
When To See A Doctor
If the odor of your vagina is strong enough that you're concerned, or if the odor persists, you should see your doctor to determine the cause. “A person should see their doctor or medical provider if there has been a change in vaginal comfort, state, smell, or feel,” Perkins tells Romper. “Changes to your vaginal discharge [or] odor may be due to an infection, including bacterial or fungal infections.” You should also visit your doctor if you’ve had a new sexual partner, multiple sexual partners, or are not in a monogamous relationship, as changes in vaginal odor or discharge can be caused by STIs. “These infections may result in infertility or pelvic infections if left untreated,” Perkins says, so it’s better to be safe and get it checked out.
Keith, L., Stromberg, P., Krotoszynski, B.K. et al. The odors of the human vagina. Arch. Gynak. 220, 1–10 (1975). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00673143
Ranjit, E., Raghubanshi, B. R., Maskey, S., & Parajuli, P. (2018). Prevalence of Bacterial Vaginosis and Its Association with Risk Factors among Nonpregnant Women: A Hospital Based Study. International journal of microbiology, 2018, 8349601. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/8349601
Dr. Kerry-Anne Perkins, MD, board-certified OB/GYN
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