Vaginal odor can be caused by a host of issues, from pH balance disruptions due to semen or blood during a women’s period to the overgrowth of microorganisms such as anaerobic bacteria or yeast.
Odors sometimes described as “fishy” are generally associated with bacterial vaginosis while a “sour” odor similar to the smell of bread or beer is often associated with yeast infections. (Yeast infections are also known for their intense itching and white discharge).
While bacterial vaginosis is the most common cause of vaginal odor, other causes can include: sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia or gonorrhea, a tampon left in the vagina.
Ironically, another potential cause of vaginal odor is the use of over-the-counter douches, which can upset the delicate balance of the vaginal ecosystem due to their harsh chemicals.
Unusual vaginal odor may be associated with various symptoms, depending on the underlying cause, such as itching, irritation, abnormal vaginal discharge, fever and/or pelvic pain. It may become worse or more noticeable after sexual intercourse.
When Should Vaginal Odor Be Treated?
While bacterial vaginosis does not usually lead to serious complications, it can increase a woman’s chances of developing a sexually transmitted disease. In addition, bacterial vaginosis in a pregnant woman creates an increased chance of pregnancy complications and susceptible to HIV.
And, because the causes of vaginal odor range from minor to serious issues, a visit to the OB/Gyn is always the most appropriate course of action when vaginal odor becomes a concern for a woman, especially if associated with other symptoms such as itching, burning or discharge. Prompt diagnosis and treatment of the causes of vaginal odor can reduce the risk of potentially serious complications, including infertility.
Immediate medical care is necessary in the case of heavy vaginal bleeding or bleeding during pregnancy.
What is the Impact of Vaginal Odor?
Women will often report to their doctors that they shower several times a day, yet still do not smell fresh “down there.” They express concern that others can smell them and worry that their odor will become an issue for their sexual partner. This distressing problem can damage a woman’s confidence, put a strain on her social and professional life and disrupt sexual intimacy, sometimes causing women to avoid sexual encounters altogether.
Problems with vaginal odor and discharge are often felt to be too embarrassing to bring up socially with friends, yet behind closed exam room doors, it is one of the most common problems women discuss with their OBGyn. Societal sensitivities about vaginal health in general and vaginal odor in particular often prevent candid, open, fact-based discussions on this important topic.