Before we begin, let’s get this out of the way: Your vagina is supposed to have a smell, despite what rude sexual partners or all those companies that make weird crotch perfumes may have told you in the past. In fact, healthy vaginas emit a Sephora’s worth of different scents throughout the month, with stronger and more subtle variations of your unique smell appearing duringdifferent parts of your menstrual cycle. Some women naturally emit stronger vaginal odors, while others don’t. And sweating heavily or having unprotected heterosexual sex (scientific terminology: “Gettin’ sperm all up in there”) can also temporarily change the smell of your fun parts. But make no mistake: Your lady flower always has a scent.
But while a scent is a sign that your junk is healthy and has its pH properly balanced, a change in smell can sometimes be a sign that something is amiss in Vagina City. Sometimes, an unusual odor coming from your nethers can signal a health problem, like a lost tampon or bacterial vaginosis infection. Other times, it may simply mean that you’ve just finished up your period.
So how do you tell the difference between a normal change in vaginal scent, and one that means you might have a health concern in Ye Olde Tunnel of Love? The only way to get a handle on the way your vagina smells when it’s healthy (and thus, how it smells when it is unwell) is to get very familiar with its scents, so that you have a baseline for what’s normal for you and what isn’t. Spending some time getting a whiff of your crotch at different times of the month is a worthwhile investment in your overall well-being. (Yes, that is a sentence that I have been waiting my whole life to type.)
But even if you haven’t put in the woman-hours cataloging your own vaginal smells, there are still times when you can tell that your vagina smells a bit off. Usually, a scent that signals something is wrong is accompanied by other symptoms — itching, swelling, discharge, or pain while urinating — but sometimes, the smell may be your only (or primary) sign that something is wrong down under. When do you need to see a doctor, and when do you just need to switch to all-cotton underpants? Read on and take a whiff, friends.
Could It Mean That Something’s Off? Yes
The idea that vaginas “smell like fish” is used so often to put down women and their bodies that it’s almost hard to talk about the times when this pungent scent can signal a real medical problem.
But an intense fishy smell in your deep blue sea can be a sign of two common vaginal infections among young women: bacterial vaginosis andtrichomoniasis. Bacterial vaginosis is an infection linked to an imbalance of bacteria in the vagina. It is not an STI, though it can be triggered by sex with a new partner. Trichomoniasis is the most common curable STI in America (though it can occasionally be contracted through nonsexual means). Both infections give off a fishy scent (and often, a white or gray discharge) as a symptom, and both can be cleared up easily with a course of prescription antibiotics.
Both can also present symptoms very similar to yeast infections, so in situations like this, checking out the unique smell is the key to diagnosing them properly (and not just treating them with some yeast infection medication that may temporarily mask the symptoms, but won’t clear the underlying infection up).