Vulvar cancer involves external genitalia, including the labia, glans clitoris, vaginal opening, and the surrounding skin and tissues. In some cases, vulvar cancer can cause an unusual change in scent.
It’s important to understand that an unexpected change in smell isn’t always cause for concern. After all, your vulva and vagina have a unique scent that changes throughout the month.
But if the odor persists or is accompanied by other unusual symptoms, it’s worth making an appointment with a healthcare professional.
Scientific research is underway to determine whether certain chemicals emitted by the body can be assessed to help detect the presence of cancer. These chemicals are known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
VOCs are found in a number of bodily fluids, including vaginal secretions, blood, urine, and feces.
There is no specific smell associated with vulvar cancer. But any change in vaginal odor, discharge, or bleeding could be related to an underlying condition, including vulvar cancer.
A healthy vulva and vagina may smell somewhat salty, sour, sweet, or musky. Menstruation can cause a slight metallic or coppery smell.
Most other smells are considered unusual and worth investigating. Consult with a doctor or other healthcare professional if your vulva or vagina smells:
In its early stages, vulvar cancer may not cause any obvious or noticeable symptoms. And many people with vulvar cancer, even in more advanced stages, experience no symptoms.
When symptoms do occur, they typically affect the outer labia. You might develop:
- persistent itching or burning
- bleeding unrelated to menstruation
- skin that looks darker or lighter than usual
- patches of thick, rough, or raised skin
- unusual bumps, lumps, sores, or rashes
While anyone of any age, ethnicity, or race can develop vulvar cancer, several factors can increase your risk.
- Age: The risk of developing vulvar cancer typically increases with age. According to the
American Cancer Society, the average age at diagnosis is 70.
- HPV exposure:
More than halfof all vulvar cancers are linked to infection with high risk HPV strains.
- Tobacco use: People who smoke cigarettes or use other tobacco products are
more likelyto develop cancer.
- Weakened immune system: You may be more likely to develop cancer if you use immunosuppressant medications or have a compromised immune system.
- Vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN): This condition occurs when abnormal cells develop on the top layer of the vulva. VIN isn’t cancerous but can increase your risk of squamous cell carcinoma.
- Skin conditions that impact the vulvar region: Lichen sclerosus is associated with an
increased riskof vulvar cancer. Lichen planus may also increase your overall risk, though more research is needed to understand the potential link.
- History of other cancers or precancerous conditions: You may be
more likelyto develop vulvar cancer if you have a history of cervical cancer, melanoma, or atypical moles.
What does the start of vulvar cancer look like?
In its early stages, vulvar cancer is
What’s the most common symptom of vulvar cancer?
Vulvar cancer is typically characterized by vulvar itching or pain as well as unusual lumps or sores.
What conditions can be mistaken for vulvar cancer?
Generally speaking, any vulvar condition that causes pain, itching, burning, or other skin changes could be mistaken for vulvar cancer.
That said, vulvar cancer is
What conditions can vulvar cancer be mistaken for?
The symptoms associated with vulvar cancer
- atopic dermatitis
- lichen sclerosus
- lichen planus
- lichen chronicus simplex
- contact dermatitis
- yeast infection (candidiasis)
- pemphigus vegetans, such as pemphigus vulgaris
Vulvar cancer may also be mistaken for certain skin cancers, such as:
Vulvar cancer can cause an unpleasant genital odor, alongside vaginal discharge, bleeding, or other secretions. If you notice these or other unusual symptoms, consult a healthcare professional for further evaluation.
Jennifer Huizen holds a BA in Creative Writing and Postcolonial Literature, a BS in Microbiology and Environmental Science, and an MS in Science Journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She lives in the United States but remains a Canadian citizen. Jennifer lives with her rescue cat, Jim Carrey, and a jungle’s worth of plants. In her free time, you’ll likely find her traveling, at the beach, reading, listening to podcasts, gardening, or hiking. You can learn more about Jennifer on LinkedIn.