Let’s get real for a moment, shall we? Discharge can be odorless, but most of the time it has a certain smell and it’s really NBD.
Everyone’s got their own unique scent to begin with, and action of any kind down there can change it, along with a number of other things.
Here’s what you need to know.
This mostly has to with your vaginal pH, which helps keep your vag healthy. Anything that gets in there can alter your pH levels and affect how you smell.
If you have P-in-V sex, semen — which is alkaline and the opposite of your vagina’s acidic environment — can temporarily change your smell.
V-to-V sex can also do it if your partner’s vaginal fluids get inside your V through tribbing, sharing a sex toy, or if they finger you after touching their V.
And let’s not forget about oral! Saliva contains digestive enzymes and bacteria. These can alter your pH balance, causing a change in your smell.
If you use barrier protection — which you totally should, BTW — a hint of latex may be what you notice when you get a whiff of your nether regions after sex. Same goes for lube, especially if it’s flavored or scented.
While these things can make you smell different, they shouldn’t make you smell bad. Just different.
Going back to front when it comes to sex of any kind can definitely cause a change in the way you smell down there, for obvious reasons. Yes, we’re talking poop.
Not only may you notice you smell different immediately after anal sex, but the bacteria in and around the anus could also lead to bacterial vaginosis (BV) or a urinary tract infection (UTI) if you don’t use barrier protection or clean up before the switch.
Any change in the way your discharge or vagina smells after sex should be short-lived. If it lingers, it might be something else.
Sweat, diet, menstrual cycle, bath products, and even your underwear can do it.
Your vagina’s home to billions of bacteria, and their makeup can change on the dime, also changing the way you smell.
Most of these smells are usually NBD.
Tangy or sour
If your odor leans a tad sour — kinda like a loaf of Nana’s sourdough bread — it’s probably fine.
A healthy vagina is slightly acidic and contains Lactobacillus. Yep, that’s the same “good bacteria” you hear about in commercials for yogurt.
Lactobacillus helps protect you from an overgrowth of bad bacteria that can cause infections.
Does your vagina smell like a fistful of pennies? Blood is the most likely culprit.
If you have period sex, a coppery or metallic smell is totally normal.
If you have a particularly rough or extended sesh, tiny tears in your tissue could cause a small amount of bleeding, which could also cause a coppery smell after sex.
FYI, bleeding after sex can be a sign of a problem, so see a doctor if there’s a lot of blood or it doesn’t stop quickly.
If your vagina smells sweet — not cotton candy sweet, but more a molasses sort of sweet — it’s all good.
It’s probably just your pesky but wonderfully protective good bacteria doing their job again.
If you’re hit with a skunky odor that reminds you of cannabis or BO, there’s a good chance it’s sweat.
Sweat can be pretty pungent on its own, but when combined with your below-the-belt bacteria, it can be especially so. And if you’re feeling particularly emotional or stressed, that can make it worse.
That’s because we have two types of sweat glands: eccrine, which are your cool-your-body-down glands, and apocrine, which respond to emotion and are located in your pits and groin.
Though not odorous on its own, the bacteria-heavy location of these glands can make it especially aromatic.
Good hygiene is important, but certain products and practices can make things go from bad to worse.
Here’s what to try and what to avoid when it comes to vaginal odor:
- Don’t douche. Douching is one of the most disruptive things you can do to your pH. It washes away the good bacteria and, in turn, increases your risk for infection.
- Don’t use scented products. Scented washes, powders, and other products won’t prevent vaginal odors; they only attempt to mask them. The end result is usually an unpleasant combo of both smells and irritation from the harsh chemicals.
- Do use gentle soap — on the outside. Use a gentle soap, a washcloth, and warm water to wash between your legs. This is all you need to wash away sweat, dirt, and dead skin cells.
- Do use only water inside your labia. Yep, water’s all you need to keep things clean in there. Your vagina is a self-cleaning wonder all on its own. No soap required.
- Do wear cotton underwear. Unlike some of those silkier fabrics, 100 percent cotton is breathable and can help prevent a buildup of moisture that can mess with your pH and odor.
- Do try a pH product. An over-the-counter (OTC) vaginal pH product may help restore balance.
Some changes in vaginal odor or discharge are a sign of an underlying condition, such as infection.
Here are some smells to watch out for that warrant a trip to the doctor.
A strong fishy odor — especially after sex — is usually caused by an infection.
BV, the most common type of vaginal infection, can cause a fishy-smelling grayish or white discharge, itching, and burning when you pee.
Experts still don’t know what exactly causes BV, but some risk factors include:
- having sex without a barrier
- sex with a new or multiple partners
Trichomoniasis, or trich, is another sexually transmitted infection (STI) that can make things smell fishy below.
Other symptoms can include:
- frothy discharge that can be yellow, green, white, or grayish
- pain during sex or urination
A course of antibiotics can cure both infections.
A yeasty smell may be caused by — you guessed it — a yeast infection.
A vaginal yeast infection is a fungal infection that can be incredibly itchy and produce a thick, cottage cheese-like discharge.
Most vagina-having folks get a yeast infection or two during their lifetime.
OTC yeast infection treatments are usually enough to clear them up.
Chemical-y, like ammonia
If there’s a bleach-like smell wafting up from between your legs, it may be NBD.
Our bodies produce some ammonia, which is broken down by the liver and excreted in urine. Sweat can also sometimes cause a similar smell.
If you’re dehydrated, waste products are more concentrated, which can make the smell a lot stronger.
In this case, you might also feel tired, dizzy, and thirsty. You may pee a lot more.
Other things that can cause an ammonia or chemical-type smell from your vagina are:
See a doctor if other unusual or concerning symptoms accompany the ammonia smell, or if you think you might be pregnant.
There are a few possible reasons for a putrid, rotting smell, starting with a forgotten tampon.
Hey, what can we say? We’re busy and sometimes tampons get forgotten.
And like a dead rat in a New York City apartment, the horrible stench will eventually alert us to the rotting corpse — or tampon in this case.
Not to mention the itching, pain, and possibly a fever.
If it’s stuck and you can’t fish it out yourself, a gynecologist can. Try not to worry — this won’t be their first case of a forgotten tampon, or their last.
See your doctor if you’re also experiencing:
- heavy or unusual vaginal discharge
- pelvic pain
- lower abdominal or back pain
- bleeding after penetrative sex or between periods
Unless your vagina suddenly smells like a zoo or aquarium or is accompanied by other symptoms, you’re probably fine.
Different doesn’t equate to bad, and a post-romp shift in your smell doesn’t say anything about you or your partner’s hygiene. We promise.
Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a Canada-based freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddle board.