Vaginal Odor

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What is vaginal odor?

A woman’s vagina normally has a mild odor, but inflammation or infection of the vagina or cervix can result in an unusually strong, persistent or bad vaginal smell that is often described as a fish-like odor.

Vaginal odor can result from a variety of conditions and diseases that include:

  • Overgrowth and imbalance of certain microorganisms, such as bacteria or yeast that normally live in the vagina in a certain balance. This is called bacterial vaginosis.

  • Sexually transmitted diseases

The most common cause of vaginal odor is bacterial vaginosis (BV), which is characterized by an overgrowth of certain bacteria in the vagina. In most cases, BV does not lead to complications, but it can increase a woman’s chances of developing a sexually transmitted disease. In addition, a pregnant woman with BV has an increased chance of pregnancy complications.

Making a diagnosis of the underlying cause of vaginal odor includes taking a medical and sexual history and completing a physical and pelvic exam. During a pelvic examination, your health care practitioner will examine the external genitalia and gently open the vagina with a smooth instrument called a speculum in order to view the vagina and cervix. Your health care practitioner will also take a small sample of cells to determine if an infection is present and to identify the type of infectious organism.

Vaginal odor is treatable. Good hygiene practices, including daily washing of the genitals with mild soap and water can help to minimize vaginal odor but will not cure vaginal odor caused by sexually transmitted diseases or other types of infections. Treatment of vaginal odor caused by disease or infection varies and is tailored to the underlying cause and the presence of any complications.

Some types of vaginal odor can be caused by serious conditions, such as sexually transmitted diseases. Seek prompt medical care if you experience any vaginal odor that is unusually strong or persistent or occurs with heavy or unusual vaginal discharge. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have heavy vaginal bleeding or bleeding during pregnancy. Early diagnosis and treatment of the underlying causes of vaginal odor reduce the risk of potential complications, such as infertility.

What other symptoms might occur with vaginal odor?

Abnormal vaginal odor is often described as a strong fish-like smell that may become worse or more noticeable after sexual intercourse. Vaginal odor may occur with other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. For example, vaginal odor due to an infection that causes pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) may occur with fever and pelvic pain.

Symptoms that may occur along with vaginal odor

Vaginal odor may accompany other symptoms including:

Symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition

In some cases, vaginal odor can be caused by or indicate a serious underlying condition, such as a sexually transmitted disease or pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). Seek prompt medical care if you have unusually strong, persistent or bad vaginal odor. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have the following symptoms:

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness

  • Change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations or delusions

  • Dizziness

  • Heavy vaginal bleeding or any bleeding with pregnancy

  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • Severe lower abdominal or back pain

What causes vaginal odor?

Unusually strong or persistent vaginal odor can be caused by a variety of diseases, disorders or conditions that affect the vagina, cervix, and other reproductive organs. Vaginal odor is commonly caused by an infection or inflammation of the vagina (vaginitis) or cervix (cervicitis). Vaginitis and cervicitis can be caused by sexually transmitted diseases, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, or other types of infections, such as a vaginal yeast infection or a bacterial infection.

The most common cause of vaginal odor is bacterial vaginosis (BV), which is associated with an overgrowth of certain bacteria in the vagina. The exact cause of BV is not known. The underlying causes of vaginal odor include:

  • Bacterial vaginosis (often caused by a Gardnerella vaginalis bacterial infection)

  • Chancroid (sexually transmitted disease caused by Haemophilus ducreyi)

  • Chlamydia (sexually transmitted disease caused by Chlamydia trachomatis)

  • Genital herpes (sexually transmitted disease caused by the herpes virus)

  • Gonorrhea (sexually transmitted disease caused by Neisseria gonorrhoeae)

  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID, which is a complication of several different sexually transmitted diseases)

  • Poor genital hygiene

  • Tampon left in the vagina for more than several hours

  • Trichomoniasis (sexually transmitted disease caused by the parasite Trichomonas vaginalis)

  • Vaginal yeast infection (vaginal thrush) caused by Candida albicans

What are the potential complications of vaginal odor?

In some cases, vaginal odor can be due to an underlying condition that can result in serious or life-threatening complications. You can minimize the risk of serious complications by seeking early medical care and following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of vaginal odor and some underlying causes include:

  • Birth defects, premature delivery, miscarriage, still birth, and life-threatening infections passed to unborn children during pregnancy and childbirth or through breast-feeding

  • Chronic pelvic pain

  • Difficulty getting pregnant and infertility

  • Ectopic pregnancy

  • Embarrassment

  • Higher risk of catching HIV/AIDS

  • Pelvic adhesions and scarring of the fallopian tubes

  • Spread of sexually transmitted diseases to sexual partners

Was this helpful?
  1. Vaginal discharge.
  2. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  3. Vaginal itching and discharge - child. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
  4. Vaginal Yeast Infections.
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 7
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