When things down there smell a little fishy, it can be alarming. But don’t panic — it’s usually nothing to worry about.
The area around your vulva and vagina can sometimes get sweaty, or the pH balance can be disrupted by hormonal changes like pregnancy or menstrual cycles. It can also be caused by certain foods or strong perfumes.
1. Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)
If you are experiencing an odour that is reminiscent of bleach or has a skunky smell, it may indicate that you have BV. BV is a bacterial infection that can cause a fishy or foul odour in the vagina, as well as a change in the colour and consistency of the vaginal discharge. BV can be treated with antibiotics, which can be taken as tablets or as prescription vaginal gels and creams.
Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) develops when there is a disruption to the normal balance of bacteria in the vagina. This imbalance can lead to an increase in anaerobic bacteria, which can produce a strong odour as they break down the lactic acid produced by the healthy lactobacilli.
BV is often associated with sexually transmitted infections, like gonorrhea and chlamydia, but it can also occur in people who are not sexually active. BV is not caused by having sex, but it can be made worse by unprotected sex, having multiple sexual partners and using products that mask vaginal odour, such as feminine hygiene sprays. Douching is also an avoidable risk factor for BV as it can disturb the pH balance of the intimate area.
Hormonal changes can also affect the composition of the vaginal microbiome and cause BV to develop. Women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, taking birth control pills or going through menopause are at a greater risk of developing BV as a result of these hormonal fluctuations.
If you sweat a lot, especially right after exercising, your vagina might smell like chlorine or bleach. This is totally normal and is a result of the natural bacteria in your vulva producing lactic acid and hydrogen peroxide to keep bad bacteria at bay. Just make sure to avoid scented soaps or feminine hygiene products that may throw your flora out of balance, says women’s health expert Jennifer Wider.
Another time your vulva might smell like bleach is when you’ve used the wrong type of condom or lube. A chlorine or bleach odor can be caused by an old condom that has lost its spermicidal coating, or it could be the result of using a lubricant with a high concentration of alcohol which can cause irritation and lead to an unpleasant smell. Switching to a different brand of condom or lube, or opting for an unscented variety, should resolve the problem.
A tangy or fermented odor is also a normal sign of your vulva’s bacterial flora. The bacterial flora produce lactic acid and other substances to maintain the pH levels of your vulva, which is slightly acidic in order to protect against infection. However, if the odor is strong and won’t go away, you might have a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis (BV). See your doctor for antibiotics to clear it up.
3. Apocrine Glands
The apocrine glands are coiled sweat glands associated with hair follicles and found in the skin of the axilla, areola, nipples and perianal skin (genital area). They are more sensitive to nervous stimulation and can be stimulated by cholinergic input to secrete odorous sweat containing organic compounds and salts.
This sweat passes through the apocrine duct and is deposited on the surface of the skin. The odour is caused by bacterial decomposition of the sweat. Apocrine glands have a specialized eosinophilic cytoplasm with a single layer of cells. They release a secretion called sialomucin through a process of budding when they are activated by emotional stress or hormone changes in puberty. This is distinct from the adrenergic secretion of eccrine sweat glands in other regions of the body.
Vaginal odours are normal and can change on a daily basis depending on the food we eat, our hygiene habits, menstrual cycle, or when we last had sex. It’s also common to get a yeast infection in the groin, which causes a thick, cottage cheese-like discharge. The smell of this is similar to skunky urine and can be extremely offensive.
After menopause, women often develop a condition called postmenopausal atrophic vaginitis which can cause the vagina to dry out and leave it smelling like ammonia. Using a panty liner and strengthening the pelvic floor muscles can help prevent urinary incontinence and make the odour go away.
A slightly tangy or fermented smell (think sour yogurt, sour beer, or sauerkraut) in your vulva is normal and no reason to be embarrassed. The reason is that your genital area has its own microbiome, filled with different bacteria and yeast, and they give it a signature scent. The smell can change on a regular basis and is often tied to your menstrual cycle, diet, and hygiene habits.
The odor can also be caused by certain foods, like garlic or onion. These odors get released by sweat glands in your armpits, which then enter your vagina through the urethra, says Dr Mary Jane Minkin, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Yale University School of Medicine.
If your vulva smells like chlorine, or any other unpleasant odor, you should talk to your OB-GYN about it. Your doctor can check for the most common causes of the smell, and suggest ways to eliminate it. They may also be able to diagnose any other problems that might be causing it, such as pelvic pain or a foreign body. In some cases, your doctor can recommend medications to treat an infection or to help you feel better. They may even be able to give you advice on how to improve your hygiene practices to prevent the odor in the future.