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.

Research shows that cancer can change the way your body smells. Vulvar cancer, in particular, can cause a foul or unpleasant vaginal odor.

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:

You may also experience pelvic pain during urination or penetration.

While anyone of any age, ethnicity, or race can develop vulvar cancer, several factors can increase your risk.

This includes:

What does the start of vulvar cancer look like?

In its early stages, vulvar cancer is usually asymptomatic. Many people do not develop noticeable symptoms until later.

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 considered rare. Your clinician will not make a diagnosis without thoroughly evaluating your symptoms, medical history, and sexual history.

They’ll likely perform a pelvic exam and take a tissue or fluid sample for testing.

What conditions can vulvar cancer be mistaken for?

The symptoms associated with vulvar cancer often overlap with the symptoms of more common vulvovaginal conditions, including:

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.