The nonmedical term for these exercise-induced vaginal side effects is “sports vagina.”

The first thing you need to know about sports vagina, says Lauren Streicher, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University, is that it isn’t an official medical term or condition.

Rather, it’s the colloquial phrase used to encompass a number of different issues that can crop up between the legs from working out, such as:

  • itching
  • irritation
  • redness
  • odor
  • chafing
  • inflammation

In fact, Streicher points out that using the word “vagina” is actually confusing and anatomically incorrect.

“When people talk about the vagina, usually what they are referring to is the outer portions, which is the vulva. The vagina is the inside, and that’s not typically what folks are referring to,” Streicher says.

Terminology aside, there’s no denying that some vulva issues and injuries can occur either during or after a sweat session. Does that mean you can use your vulva as an excuse to take another rest day? Not quite.

But it may mean swapping your current athleisure for workout garb that’s better suited for exercise.

Below, find everything you need to know about how working out can affect you between the legs. Plus, what you can do to prevent it.

What’s the deal around odor?

Just as every vagina has its own flare, every vagina has its own natural scent, which is dependent on a number of factors, such as diet, hydration, sex, and hormones. It’s very common to notice that your smell is stronger or more pronounced right after a workout too.

“The smell is probably just sweat,” Streicher says. “If you’re working out, you’re sweating, so the scent is probably just genital sweat.”

Kecia Gaither, MD, OB-GYN, offers a similar sentiment: “The vaginal area contains two types of sweat glands: the eccrine glands, which produce moisture that is mostly odorless, and the apocrine glands, which are pretty abundant in hair follicles (which the groin has), and which releases an oilier, smellier sweat.”

So, yep, you could just have a sweaty crotch — although it may not just be sweat. Workouts with a lot of jumping (think box jumps, jump rope, and burpees) may also cause a little bit of urine or discharge to come out, which Streicher says can make the smell muskier too.

Overall, slight changes in your fragrance are normal. So, if you notice a stronger odor after exercising, don’t fret too much. Your best bet is to change out of your workout gear instead of trying to cover up the smell with potentially irritating products, Gaither says.

But if you still notice a strange smell compared to your usual one after a shower, go see a healthcare provider. It could be a symptom of an infection.

How to handle chafing and irritation like a champ

While there’s a lot of chatter about the inner-thigh chafing among female athletes, vulvar chafing is possible too.

Streicher suggests applying Aquaphor, petroleum jelly, or Vaseline to the outside of the vulva to create a barrier between your skin and your clothing as a first line of defense. (Emphasis on outside!)

And as for clothing? “What styles and fits of clothes that are nonirritating to you comes down to personal preference and body shape. Snug, loose, tight, it doesn’t really matter. It’s going to take some trial and error on your part to figure out what your body responds poorly to,” Streicher says. “Usually, cotton is almost always best because it’s most breathable.”

Consider replacing your tight workout clothes with slightly looser cotton ones. If not, your best bet is to bop into the locker room after your workout and change out of your bottoms.

If your vulvar chafing doesn’t go away with home treatments, your doctor may prescribe a topical steroid.

What if you’re not exactly experiencing chafing but your vulva and bikini line are showing signs of irritation like redness, dryness, or itching? The recommended treatments above should work, Gaither says. “Also make sure you’re not washing with any potential irritants,” she adds.

What about symptoms that aren’t going away?

Be it a funky odor, itchiness, or abnormal discharge, if your symptoms are causing discomfort, be proactive and meet with a healthcare provider. You could have a yeast infection, bacterial vaginosis, UTI, or bladder infection.

To be clear: Exercise itself can’t cause these infections, Streicher emphasizes. However, running around in sweat-soaked workout bottoms for an extended amount of time might.

Infection typeAdditional symptoms Treatment
yeast (Candida)cottage cheese-textured discharge, burning when you pee, pain during penetration 1- to 3-day regimen of antifungal cream, ointment, tablet, or suppository; avoid clothing that retains moisture
bacterial vaginosispersistent fishy odor, thin discolored discharge, itchiness, burning when you peeoral or suppository antibiotics
UTIfrequent urination, burning when you peeoral antibiotics
 

Gaither’s advice for preventing infections

The same advice stands: Avoid underwear and bottoms that are synthetic in nature, as they aren’t breathable. Instead, opt for cotton underwear, which is the most breathable material.

Or, change out of sweaty workout clothes as soon as possible. (Sorry, but that means *not* going grocery shopping in the yoga pants you just wore to Bikram.)

And in case it isn’t obvious: Don’t rewear dirty workout clothes.

Keep cleanliness a priority

Working out may cause your crotch to sweat, and depending on what you wear, it could lead to vulvar irritation. While working out can’t cause an infection, hanging out in your sweaty gear too long could.

If you’re concerned about your vagina and there’s a fishy odor, funky discharge, or stinging sensation, speak with a healthcare provider.

And either way, it’s important to remember that your vagina and vulva shouldn’t be getting in the way of your exercise routine!


Gabrielle Kassel is a rugby-playing, mud-running, protein-smoothie-blending, meal-prepping, CrossFitting, New York–based wellness writer. She’s become a morning person, tried the Whole30 challenge, and eaten, drunk, brushed with, scrubbed with, and bathed with charcoal, all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books, bench-pressing, or practicing hygge. Follow her on Instagram.