Health and diet may affect the natural fragrance of the vagina alongside hormonal shifts.
It is common for women to be self-conscious about their vaginal odor. These negative feelings can affect self-esteem and body image.
However, it is also normal for the vagina to have a mild, musky smell. Indeed, research suggests that this odor is partially due to pheromones that can increase sexual attractiveness and subtly communicate information about fertility.
This odor changes with hormonal shifts during pregnancy, menopause, and the menstrual cycle. So a subtle smell is not a cause for concern. Some other odors, however, warrant a call to a doctor.
Fishy vaginal odor
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is the most common vaginal infection among women of childbearing age. When something upsets the vagina’s complex chemistry, harmful bacteria can grow out of control, producing a fishy odor.
Some women with BV experience other symptoms, such as itching or burning, which may feel like a yeast infection. For many women though, the smell is the only symptom. Prescription antibiotics can treat the problem.
Healthful habits can also reduce the risk of BV. Those include:
Avoiding douches, which upset the delicate pH balance of the vagina.
Not using scented or flavored products in or around the vagina. Perfumes and other products, such as scented tampons, can alter vaginal chemistry and cause BV.
Limiting the number of sexual partners and practicing safer sex. While BV is not a sexually transmitted infection (STI), multiple sexual partners can upset the bacteria balance in the vagina, causing BV.
Sweet or beer-like vaginal odor
A yeast overgrowth in the vagina can produce a sweet smell reminiscent of honey or cookies. The vagina might also smell like beer, flour, or bread.
Sometimes the odor smells sour, but it can also be pleasant. Intense burning, itching, or feelings of dryness usually accompany yeast infections. They tend to get worse over time, and some women may notice a discharge that resembles cottage cheese.
People can treat these infections using over-the-counter medicines. However, a woman experiencing her first yeast infection should talk to her doctor to rule out other causes.
Many of the same measures that prevent BV, such as avoiding scented products and never douching, can also prevent yeast overgrowth. Other strategies include:
Only taking antibiotics when necessary: In some women, antibiotics kill beneficial vaginal bacteria, triggering the growth of vaginal yeast.
Avoiding oral sex with people who have thrush in their mouth.
Keeping the vaginal area relatively dry: As yeast thrives in a moist environment. Towel off after a bath or shower, and avoid sitting in wet swimwear or underwear.
Hormonal changes during menopause may alter the scent of the vagina, and leave the vagina feeling dry.
Some STIs, notably trichomoniasis, may also alter the smell of the vagina. Any shift in vaginal odor, particularly if the smell is strong or unpleasant, demands a trip to the doctor. It is not recommended to use perfume to mask the smell.