Vaginal odor is any odor that originates from the vagina. It's normal for your vagina to have a slight odor. But, a strong vaginal odor — for instance, a "fishy" smell — might be abnormal and could indicate a problem.
Abnormal vaginal odor that happens because of infection or another problem is usually associated with other vaginal signs and symptoms such as itching, burning, irritation or discharge.
Vaginal odor may vary throughout your menstrual cycle and may be especially noticeable right after having sex. Normal sweating also can cause a vaginal odor. Though it may be tempting to douche or use a vaginal deodorant to decrease vaginal odor, these products may actually increase irritation and other vaginal symptoms.
Bacterial vaginosis — an overgrowth of normally occurring vaginal bacteria — is the most common vaginal infection that causes a vaginal odor. Trichomoniasis — a sexually transmitted infection — also can lead to vaginal odor. Chlamydia and gonorrhea infections usually don't cause vaginal odors. Neither do yeast infections.
Generally, if you have vaginal odor without other vaginal symptoms, it's unlikely that your vaginal odor is abnormal.
Common causes of abnormal vaginal odor include:
- Poor hygiene
- A retained or forgotten tampon left in place for several days
Less commonly, abnormal vaginal odor may result from:
- Rectovaginal fistula (an abnormal opening between the rectum and vagina that allows feces to leak into the vagina)
- Cervical cancer
- Vaginal cancer
When to see a doctor
If you're concerned about an abnormal or persistent vaginal odor, see your doctor for a vaginal exam — especially if you have other signs and symptoms such as itching, burning, irritation or discharge.
In the meantime, to minimize vaginal odor:
- Wash your external genital area. During regular baths or showers, use a very small amount of mild, unscented soap and lots of water.
- Avoid douching. All healthy vaginas contain bacteria and yeast. The normal acidity of your vagina keeps bacteria and yeast in check. But douching can actually upset this delicate balance.