All body odors are not created equal. Even though men's nether regions give off their fair share of smells from sweat, urine, semen, and so forth, women's vaginas bear most of the scrutiny. No wonder so many women worry their vagina smells bad. There's a whole industry trying to profit from our vaginal odor insecurity complex with scented panty liners, wipes, and other feminine odor products. However, sometimes a strange smell down there is a sign of a medical issue, like if it smells like a cleaning product. You may wonder, why does my vagina smell like bleach? Romper talks to Dr. Erin Duncan of Atlanta Gynecology and Obstetrics to find out what different vaginal odors mean and when you need to see a doctor about yours.
When women complain about vaginal odors, it's usually because they think they smell "fishy," "musky," or even "sour." A bleach-like scent is not as common, but there could be multiple causes for it, including bacterial vaginosis, infection, prenatal vitamins, dietary factors, and the use of condoms and/or lubricants during sex. Duncan, an OB-GYN with a Master's in Public Health, says that while these are all causes of vaginal odor, the culprit is usually just normal vaginal discharge:
"It is completely normal and expected to have vaginal discharge that changes with your cycle and may occasionally have a smell. However, if the smell lasts longer than a couple of days or is associated with itching, burning, or a rash, you should seek care. Typically bacterial vaginosis (an overgrowth of many different types of bacteria in the vagina) will be described as a fishy smell, but some women say it smells like ammonia. Essentially it is caused by in an increase in the pH of the vagina, which means it's more basic and less acidic. Ammonia is a commonly used base which would be familiar to many women."
Duncan also notes that "while some vaginal discharge and infections are from normal changes in a woman's vaginal environment, they can also be signs of sexually transmitted infections, which can have an impact on fertility later in life. The best way to see if it is something that needs to be treated is to see your obstetrician/gynecologist so they can look at the discharge under a microscope. They will also ask you some questions about recent activities to determine if they need to send additional studies, which can take a couple of days to return."
If you do have an infection causing a bleachy or otherwise unpleasant odor, what are the treatments? According to Duncan, "Bacterial vaginosis is treated with an antibiotic that can be prescribed either orally or vaginally. You can not drink alcohol with the oral version or you can get very sick. This is the same medicine used to treat trichomoniasis (or "trich," which is a very common sexually transmitted infection) but in a different dose. Yeast infections can be treated with creams or a pill, although there are studies that suggest that the pill can increase the chance of preterm birth and it now has an FDA warning. There has been no evidence against the creams and preterm birth."
She notes that if you have gonorrhea, this can be treated with a shot and a pill, and chlamydia is treated with the same pill as gonorrhea. If you have been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection (gonorrhea, chlamydia, trichomoniasis), Duncan notes that it's important to let any sexual partners you've had in the last few months know since they will also need treatment. "You should not have unprotected sex for at least a week after you and you partner have both been treated," she adds.
Next, I ask Duncan about the difference in vaginal odors for pregnant women. She explains that "a pregnant woman obviously won't have the changes with the cycle that I mentioned earlier, but she will have normal discharge, especially in the later months of the pregnancy. The same rules apply that she should seek care if there are any additional symptoms of itching, burning, or a rash. Other worrisome signs would be vaginal bleeding or continuous leaking of watery discharge, which could actually mean that her water has broken."
Of course, even if your vaginal odors are normal and not a sign of infection, they may still bother you or make you feel self-conscious. I ask Duncan what women in this situation can do and she advises them to "wear cotton-based underwear and change immediately after exercise or any other time you are sweating. If you have diabetes or another reason that your immune system is compromised, do your best to keep it well controlled. Poorly controlled diabetes in particular can be a reason for recurrent yeast infections. Seek medical care if you are concerned." And most importantly? Duncan says you absolutely should not douche or use lotions or soaps inside the vagina. "That can change the normal vaginal environment and make it more likely for you to have other infections."
Your vagina may smell like bleach, but at least there's an explanation and treatment. If the odor doesn't fade or is accompanied by other symptoms, contact your healthcare provider.
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