To put it plainly: all vaginas smell. However, play any given song by a female rapper today and it’s very likely you’ll hear her advertise her sexual desirability by claiming she has “no smell”. There is a definite societal misconception that vaginas with a smell are unhygienic; but what is more concerning and damaging is that society has weaponised the idea by overlying it with a strong element of shame. The subtext is that people with vaginas that smell are unclean, sexually objectionable, and that no partner would want to perform certain sexual acts like oral sex on them as a result. Whilst it’s categorically untrue that vaginas with no smell exist, it’s also true that some smells can represent infection or other concerns (in which case, a trip to the GP’s office is in order).
The vagina is a self-cleaning organ with a quite acidic environment. Typical vaginal discharge is clear or white, and often its consistency changes from thin fluid to thick mucous with the phase of the menstrual cycle. It generally doesn’t smell offensive, but certainly has a smell. Additionally, the groin is full of sweat glands which can also contribute to smell. As a general rule, unless there are symptoms like itch or discomfort, or change in the colour, volume or smell of discharge, your smell is most likely normal. Sometimes, in an effort to reduce smell, we can trigger disruption in the microbiome and the pH of the vagina (such as through use of douches, overcleaning, or using deodorant sprays). This approach is not advised – trust that the vagina knows what it is doing! To best support your vagina and reduce smells, wear breathable underwear, avoid panty liners when not necessary (as this can trap moisture), and avoid over-washing.
Bacterial vaginosis (or BV) is the usual culprit behind a vaginal discharge described as “fishy”, and can be associated with a thin, watery, grey discharge (often more prominent after intercourse). It is due to imbalance or overgrowth of bacteria in the vagina. BV isn’t a sexually-transmitted infection (STI), but it can increase your risk of contracting one. BV can be treated with a course of oral antibiotics – just ensure you abstain from sex whilst you’re having treatment.
Trichomoniasis is a common STI which causes offensive vaginal discharge (also sometimes described as “fishy”) and is associated with a clear, yellow or green discharge. When symptomatic, you may also experience itching and burning sensations, discomfort when passing urine and during intercourse, and genital redness. To avoid reinfection, yourself and partner(s) should be treated for trichomoniasis simultaneously with oral antibiotics.
A less-common but not unheard-of scenario is a retained foreign body, such as a tampon (which can be easily forgotten). If you have concerns that your vaginal discharge smells “rotten”, self-examine the vagina or see a GP to assess for foreign bodies. Untreated foreign bodies can lead to pelvic infection or, in the case of tampons especially, life-threatening Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS).
Thrush is a common scenario, and usually presents as thick clumpy white discharge (like “cottage cheese”). It may smell yeasty, as thrush is a yeast infection, but the discharge and symptoms of irritation are more prominent. Thrush is often triggered by pregnancy or a recent course of antibiotics, but some people are simply more prone to it than others. A GP can usually diagnose thrush on examination, but if in the early stages, taking swabs and seeing if the yeast grows can also be used for diagnosis. Treatment is with creams or pessaries, such as Canestan.
In people with vaginas, STIs such as Chlamydia and Gonorrhoea can fly under the radar. They often cause infection asymptomatically, but in some cases, can be associated with a foul-smelling odour, or changes to your vaginal discharge (white, yellow, grey or green are all potentials). You may also have pain with urination, discomfort with intercourse, or general irritation. If STIs progress to pelvic infection, you may also have fevers and abdominal pain. Ultimately, as so many STIs don’t exhibit symptoms, it is best to have regular STI screening (unless in a stable monogamous relationship, this is generally six-monthly, or three-monthly if having frequent new partners or having intercourse without reliable condom use). Always ensure recent partners are tested and treated too if you have any concerns about an STI.
If you want to find a GP or sexual health nurse about any vaginal health concerns, you can search for services online or contact 1800 My Options on 1800 696 784 (weekdays, 9am - 5pm).