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Vaginal odors are a source of anxiety for many people, especially due to an association between smells and hygiene. Despite this belief, vaginal odor is normal, if somewhat complex. The presence of an odor does not necessarily indicate an issue, but it can in certain circumstances.

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“Healthy” Odors

A slight vaginal odor is normal and healthy. Many people believe that vaginal smells are a sign of poor hygiene, but this is not necessarily true. Every vagina has a different odor and there is no standard healthy smell. Instead, it is important to recognize one’s own usual odor in order to quickly identify any changes. Experts say that as long as there are no related symptoms, vaginal odor is not likely to be unhealthy.

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Causes of Odor Changes

Many conditions and events can cause a vaginal odor to change. Sexual intercourse, for example, may increase the strength of the odor. The smell may also change significantly throughout the menstrual cycle. Even slight adjustments in hygiene habits or diet can change the vaginal odor. Stress or anxiety may also influence the smell.

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Vaginitis

A common condition that causes a strong vaginal odor is vaginitis: inflammation of the vagina. Along with the stronger odor, the woman may also experience discharge, pain, and itching. Vaginitis has several subtypes, the most common being bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, and trichomoniasis. Urination and sex may become painful. Some people with vaginitis develop light vaginal bleeding or spotting.

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Poor Hygiene

While vaginal odor does not necessarily indicate poor hygiene, a person’s hygiene does affect the smell. Sweat accumulation is a major contributor to vaginal odor. The groin region has apocrine sweat glands, which produce an oily and strong-smelling compound. Bacteria break down this compound, creating a pungent odor. Improper cleaning may also lead to accumulations of urine in underwear or around the vulva, worsening vaginal odor.

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Excess Cleaning

Just as too little cleaning may worsen vaginal odor, too much may do so, as well. Healthy vaginas contain bacteria and yeast that the region's natural acidity keeps in check. Washing with scented soaps or douching can upset the organ’s delicate pH balance, which can lead to worse vaginal odors.

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Cancer

Though rare, several types of cancer include foul vaginal odors among their many symptoms. For example, vaginal and cervical cancers can cause heavy  discharge with a strong smell. Sometimes, this discharge contains a small amount of blood. The odor originates from dying cancerous cells in the internal sex organs.

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Food

A person’s diet can also be responsible for undesirable vaginal odors. Typically, this is due to eating foods that disrupt the vagina’s sensitive pH balance. Some of the worst offenders are garlic, mint, blue cheese, cabbage, red meat, vinegar, onions, and asparagus. Drinking alcohol and not drinking enough water may also cause vaginal odor to worsen.

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Prevention

Because vaginal odors are completely natural, it is impossible to prevent or get rid of them entirely. However, it is possible to prevent the smell from worsening. Practicing good hygiene and proper cleaning is key to preventing foul-smelling infections, as well as avoiding odors from sweat and urine. Additionally, do not use douches or similar internal vaginal cleaning products.

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Proper Cleaning

Understanding how to properly clean the groin and genitals is key to preventing undesirable smells. Only wash the external parts — the vulva. Limit the use of perfumed soaps and gels, and never use antiseptics or similar products on any area of the genitals. The vagina can clean itself so there is no need to insert anything to clean it. It is also important to keep the perineal area between the vulva and the anus clean.

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When to See a Doctor

Distinctive, changing, or long periods of odd Vaginal odor can sometimes be a sign of a serious medical issue that requires expert attention. A worsening odor that occurs alongside discharge, burning, or itching means that there may be a serious infection. Experts recommend that if an odor seems alarming or unusual, it is best to see a professional.

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Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.