How Do You Know If You Smell Healthy?

We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. This week’s topic: Why your vagina might smell, and how you know if your "feminine odor" is healthy.

Q: Sometimes, I worry that my vagina smells. It seems like it's different at different times of the month, but how do I know whether it's just normal fluctuations in my cycle or unhealthy? Sometimes, when my boyfriend goes down on me he likes it, and sometimes he says it smells ... not great. Is he being a dick, or is it a sign that something might be wrong?

A: Reality check: vaginas have a smell. I mean, come on, basically all bodily fluids smell like something, so it would be a bit weird if vaginal fluid was the lone exception, right?

Interestingly, though, research suggests that your vagina doesn’t have just one smell — it has almost 2,100 distinct odors. It’s the complex composition of these mini-smells that combine in different ways to make the, um, maxi-smell that you know as "the way I smell down there."

Your smell can change over time for completely normal reasons. Most healthy vaginal discharge doesn’t have a very strong smell, but your scent changes throughout your menstrual cycle, and sex can make your scent more powerful right after. Sweating like the active gal you are can also result in a more powerful odor. All of this is totally normal and just part of livin’ life with a pussy.

That being said, some of the smells emanating from your panties may be indicative of a health problem. Here's how you can tell if your scent is perfectly normal, or a sign that you should visit your ob/gyn.

Abnormal Vaginal Odor Culprits

While I’m gonna go ahead and suggest that your boyfriend might be acting less-than-sweetly by making you feel anything other than the delicious woman you are, it isn’t a bad idea to be aware of any changes in your vaginal smell. That’s because a less-than-yummy smell — particularly a persistent one that’s coupled with other symptoms such as vaginal irritation and changes in discharge consistency — may be indicative of a struggling vagina. Here are a few possible culprits.

Possible Culprit #1: Bacterial Vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis occurs when the pH of your vagina is more basic than it likes to be, allowing for some bacteria that always live down there to over-flourish in the lush garden of your earthly delights. Doctors aren’t actually sure why this happens, but activities that put you at greater risk include unprotected sex and too much douching. In addition to a smell described as “fishy," bacterial vaginosis may give you the itchies and thin, gray-colored discharge. If this sounds like you, talk to your doctor because the only proven way to get rid of bacterial vaginosis is through prescribed medications.

Possible Culprit #2: Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) we don’t hear about all that often. It’s caused by a very small parasite. But you should know about it because it’s actually extremely prevalent — in fact, it’s the most common curable STD, with an estimated 7.4 million cases each year. Only around 30 percent of people who have this miniscule pesky parasite show symptoms, which can include vaginal discharge that is green or yellow in color, frothy in texture, and strong in odor; pain when you pee; the ever-present itchy vagina; and discomfort during sex. Luckily, these unpleasantries can be treated with an oral antibiotic, so talk to your doctor.

The culprits that follow are extremely rare. This MOST LIKELY IS NOT YOU. Talk to your doctor if you’re at all worried about these health conditions.

Unlikely Culprit #1: Rectovaginal Fistula

A rectovaginal fistula is when the connection between your rectum and vagina is messed up, making the contents of your large intestine (gas or stool) leak out through your vagina instead of exiting your body through your rectum like they’re supposed to do. If you are finding gas, stool, or pus in your vagina; your discharge smells bad; you’re getting lots of urinary tract infections (UTIs); your vagina, vulva, and perineum (aka taint) hurts or is irritated; and/or sex hurts, you may be struggling with a rectovaginal fistula. This condition has many causes, including: injury while squeezing out a kid, complications during pelvic surgery, Chrohn’s disease, or other diseases resulting in inflammatory bowels. Sometimes these fistulas close on their own, but most need surgery to repair them, so talk to your doctor!

Unlikely Culprit #2: Cervical or Vaginal Cancer

Both cervical cancer and vaginal cancer are no joke, and can be difficult to detect because symptoms are rare in the early stages. However, both types of ladypart cancer can result in strong odor discharge, vaginal bleeding at unexpected times (aka not during your period, but after penetrative sex), and pain when you pee or in your pelvic region in general. The biggest risk factor for vaginal cancer is age, so if you’re youthful seriously don’t stress too much.

Cervical cancer is caused by some of the strains of the STD human papillomavirus (HPV), so if you’re negative for HPV, you’re in the clear. I’ve written a whole article on HPV so if you want to protect yourself from it, think you might have it, or just want to learn more, you can read all about it here. If you’re visiting your gynecologist regularly, you should be getting pap smears that will catch any abnormal cervical cells so that you can nip cervical cancer in the bud. Talk to your doctor if you have any of these symptoms, because catching cancer early is the best way to stay healthy.

Solutions for Less-than-ideal Natural Vaginal Odor

If you don’t have any of the health problems identified above but are still worried about the way you smell down there, here are some things you can do on your own to get yourself smelling your best!

  1. Wash your external bits (vulva and labia) with lots of water and some unscented soap. Just to get it back to its natural glory.
  2. Don’t add smells to mask your smell! That is to say: don’t hit the feminine hygiene product aisle for a douche or “feminine” (code for vaginal) deodorant. These can not only irritate your vagina, but they can actually exacerbate some of the problems that may be causing your nether odor.
  3. Don’t leave tampons in longer than you’re supposed to. They are basically sponges that retain smells in addition to menstrual fluid. Your period is a purge, so don’t block the pipes.
  4. Avoid foods that are spicy or have intense smells, like coffee, onions, garlic, and strong spices, since research shows they can intensify your smell. Meat and dairy can also alter your scent.

Here's the bottom line: If your scent is changing with the moon, as it were, you’re probably experiencing the normal fluctuations that come with being a human with a vagina. If you’re not into the way that makes you smell, you can experiment with the solutions listed above and see how that works for you. And make sure to talk to your boyfriend — maybe since he’s so sensitive to your smell, he can help assess whether any of these solutions are actually working. And if everything is healthy and he's still not into it? Well then most likely, that's his issue — not yours.

Images: Giphy