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Vaginal health is a crucial aspect of overall well-being, yet it’s often shrouded in confusion and sometimes even embarrassment. The truth is the vagina, like any other part of the body, has its own ecosystem and can be easily influenced by various factors. Our menstrual cycle, diet, hygiene habits, menopause, pregnancy, and even the fabric of our clothes can cause an imbalance, all leading to changes in odor. When it comes down to it, understanding what’s normal and when to seek help is critical in maintaining good vaginal health is key, and the how to get rid of vaginal odor doesn’t have to be as scary as it seems.

Symptoms of Vaginal Odor

Firstly, it’s essential to distinguish between normal and abnormal vaginal odors. While it’s natural for the vagina to have a slight odor, any sudden changes or foul-smelling odors could indicate an underlying issue. Board-certified OB/GYN Dr. Christine Greves suggests first monitoring the treatment for changes, and if you find that something is off, book an appointment to see your doctor. Symptoms to pay attention to include:

  • Changes in odor
  • Changes in discharge color or consistency
  • Burning, itching, or irritation
  • Pain during urination or sex

Understanding Vaginal pH Balance

The vagina is a delicately balanced environment, with a healthy pH level ranging between 3.8 and 5.0. This slightly acidic environment is maintained by lactobacilli, which plays a crucial role in maintaining a healthy vaginal pH while preventing the growth of harmful bacteria and yeast. However, factors even as small as washing with a scented soap or consuming a high-sugar diet can cause an imbalance, allowing unhealthy bacteria to grow, resulting in vaginal odor and potential infections. The most important aspect to remember is that your vaginal odor is affected by your pH levels; therefore, if you’re having odor issues, your pH levels are most likely imbalanced.

Normal vs. Abnormal Vaginal Odors

Understanding what odors are normal can help distinguish when something is off. Normal odors include tangy/sour, metallic/copper, sweet/earthy, and bleachy/ammonia smells. However, abnormal odors such as fishy (indicative of trichomoniasis or bacterial vaginosis), sweet (yeast infection), or rotten (tampon left in too long) require attention and possible medical intervention.

Normal/Healthy Odors:

  • Tangy/Sour: Often compared to the smell of sourdough, yogurt, or other products with lactobacilli, this probiotic is vital for maintaining pH levels. The healthy bacteria keep the vagina more acidic to protect against an overgrowth of harmful bacteria which can cause infections.
  • Metallic/Copper: The familiar scent of pennies in your vaginal odor is due to the iron that is in your blood. The odor is most common during or at the end of your menstruation cycle. It can also occur from minor cuts or scrapes for those who experience vaginal dryness but is less likely. If you notice itching or vaginal discharge with the bleeding, you may want to see your doctor as this could be more serious.
  • Sweet/Earthy: A slight sweetness (or “molasses-y” scent) means that the healthy bacteria in your body are working as they should. The sweet scent may just be your body experiencing a slight flux in odor, which is completely normal as our bodies change over time.
  • Bleach/Ammonia: A “bleach-y” or chemical smell can indicate a few things. Urine contains a byproduct of ammonia called urea, and when traces of urine are left in underwear or around the vulva, it can give off a chemical-like odor. A strong ammonia odor can also result from dehydration, as it causes the urea in our urine to be more concentrated, leaving a more pungent odor. While the scent isn’t typically harmful, if you’re experiencing other symptoms, such as itching or burning, this can be a sign of bacterial vaginosis.

Abnormal/Unhealthy Vaginal Odors:

  • Trichomoniasis: Trichomoniasis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that is often the result of having unprotected sex or multiple sexual partners. Symptoms include a mild fishy odor and a green, frothy discharge. It can also cause irritation and pain during sex.
  • Bacterial Vaginosis: Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) is another STI caused by an overgrowth of bacteria that disrupts the balance of healthy bacteria in the vagina. BV can be caused by a number of things, including having multiple sex partners or even douching. Symptoms include a fishy odor and increased vaginal discharge (usually white or gray). Irritation, itching, and a burning sensation are also common.
  • Yeast Infection: A yeast infection has a sweeter (beer-like) odor with a thicker (white-ish or yellow), clumpier discharge. The infection occurs when there’s an overgrowth of yeast developing in the vagina caused by warm and humid environments (think non-breathable clothing). Many experience itching, irritation, burning, and pain; luckily, most over-the-counter anti-fungal medications will take care of it. It’s important to note that taking antibiotics, in general, can increase the risk of yeast infections for some individuals as it eliminates the good bacteria in the vagina. Greves says, “If you have experienced this type of discharge before and think it could be a yeast infection see your doctor after trying an over-the-counter cream to help with yeast infections.”
  • Rotten: A horrible, putrid odor indicates a tampon that has been left in the vagina for too long. Discharge can be yellow, pink, green, brown, or gray and can cause bacterial vaginosis if left in too long. Some of the symptoms include abdominal or pelvic pain, redness or swelling around the vagina, fever, and pain with urination. If you can’t remove the tampon yourself, contact a health professional immediately. Having a tampon in for too long can potentially cause toxic shock syndrome (TSS), which can become life-threatening if not addressed.

7 Natural Remedies for Vaginal Odor, A.K.A How to Get Rid of Vaginal Odor

Implementing natural remedies to fight odor is the safest (and some of the most effective methods) you can approach when it comes to something as delicate as your vaginal health. Here’s a list of ways to get rid of (or prevent) vaginal odor:

  1. Wear breathable underwear: Cotton is by far the best material if you want to keep your vagina happy and healthy. It’s highly regarded as breathable and absorbs excess moisture better than alternative products. Merino wool, linen, and bamboo are also excellent choices. Make sure to stay away from synthetic materials, such as nylon, polyester, and spandex. These are among the worst choices due to the lack of airflow. Not only do they trap moisture, but they make for the perfect place to grow bacteria and develop an infection. Unfortunately, it doesn’t just stop there. A majority of leggings and yoga pants use the same spandex, nylon, and polyester materials that are terrible for our vaginal microbiome.
  2. Avoid scents around your vagina: Always avoid perfumes, powders, deodorant sprays, vaginal deodorants, scented lotions and soaps, antibacterial soaps, douching, and other scented products (including laundry soaps). “A vagina is made to clean itself and was designed with certain good bacteria that are present that do a lot of the work,” Greves explains. “When using deodorant products, or feminine hygiene products, they can disrupt the natural bacteria flora.” This causes bacteria overgrowth, skin irritation, and will only worsen your vaginal odor.
  3. Wash your vagina with care: At this point, it’s clear how delicate the vagina is, and this applies to washing, too. Scrubbing too hard can create microtears that can lead to irritation or infection. Gently wash using unscented soaps on the outer parts, and most importantly, NEVER use soap on the inside of your vagina. This can affect your pH, causing irritation and infection. There’s no need to clean the inside of your vagina, either, as it’s self-cleansing.
  4. Shower regularly: This one may be a bit obvious, but when it comes to your vagina, you want a balanced level of care (meaning not over-washing, but still keeping healthy hygiene habits). Overwashing can cause irritation, an imbalance, and even make your vagina smell worse. If you shower more than once a day (i.e., after working out), consider washing your vagina with just water, as you don’t want to irritate the skin or throw off the pH. With that said, it’s still important to have good hygiene. Our bodies accumulate sweat, dirt, and dead skin throughout the day, which needs to be washed away to prevent infections.
  5. Take probiotics: Taking probiotics regularly is one of the best things you can do for your vaginal health if you find yourself a little unbalanced. Probiotics support healthy bacteria, help prevent some infections, and can restore a healthy pH level, all of which help reduce odor. HUM’s Private Party combines three crucial vaginal probiotics with a cranberry supplement to create a product that balances a healthy vaginal microbiome and urinary tract. The probiotic provides healthy bacteria to the body, naturally balancing the pH levels and helping prevent UTIs from occurring, which can also cause an imbalance in your pH.
  6. Change out of your wet swimsuit: We typically don’t think twice about the consequences of wearing a wet swimsuit while having fun at the beach or pool. But wearing a wet swimsuit in a dark, warm environment for too long is the perfect place for bacteria to grow, resulting in a yeast infection. If you know you’ll be out all day, bring extra clothes to change into.
  7. Stay hydrated: When you’re dehydrated, harmful bacteria tend to build up in the vagina, causing an imbalance in pH levels and increasing the risk of infection. However, those who are well-hydrated are less likely to see an overgrowth of bacteria and can maintain a healthy balance.

When to Seek Professional Help on How to Get Rid of Vaginal Odor

While some vaginal odors can simply be managed with home remedies, others may require medical attention. If you experience itching, burning, abnormal bleeding, rash, swelling, or pain, especially during urination or sex, you should consult with a healthcare professional. These symptoms could indicate an underlying infection or other medical condition that may require treatment. While monitoring is always a good idea, Dr. Greves says, “If you have a new sexual partner, then you may want to see a doctor sooner rather than later to exclude infection or if you have pain.”

The Takeaway…

Before jumping to conclusions about all the “what ifs,” it’s essential to understand that some odors are normal and can be influenced by various natural factors throughout your life. By maintaining proper hygiene, paying attention to changes in odor, and incorporating some of these natural remedies into your routine, you can effectively improve your vaginal odor.

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