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An onion-like vaginal odor isn’t normal and may be a sign of infection. However, most causes can be treated with lifestyle changes and antibiotics.

A healthy vagina has no singular smell. Every woman has her own unique scent, and the odor can change throughout the month. That said, certain things can cause it to smell in a way that may indicate an underlying problem.

Keep reading to learn more about what may be causing your symptoms, how you can find relief, and when to see your doctor.

As you might expect, eating a lot of onion or garlic can cause your vaginal discharge and urine to take on a strong onion or garlic scent.

Asparagus can also cause your urine to take on a strong scent, which could be mistaken for vaginal odor. Curry and heavily spiced foods can lead to vaginal discharge or sweat with a distinct smell too.

What you can do

If your diet is to blame, the smell should return to normal within the next 48 hours. Drink extra water to flush the foods and scents from your urethra and sweat.

If the odors remain after three days, make an appointment to see your healthcare provider. An underlying condition may be behind your symptoms.

Sweat is much more than fluid escaping your body when you’re hot. Sweat is filled with skin cells and bacteria, and it can escape from almost every pore in your body.

Although sweat helps cool your body, it can also stink. When sweat mingles with fluids in and around your vagina, your natural scent may change. The odor may grow stronger if you’re sweating a lot, like during warm months or after exercise.

What you can do

You can’t — and don’t want to — stop sweat. It’s a vital function for your body. However, you can help prevent unwanted odors by frequently changing your underwear and other clothes if you sweat a lot.

Be sure to wear breathable, natural fabrics like cotton. Avoid wearing workout or exercise clothes multiple times between washes.

Your vagina is designed to take care of itself by keeping a healthy balance of bacteria. These bacteria help prevent infections and irritation.

If you don’t wash or change your underwear daily, you will experience odor problems. Poor hygiene of the labia may also lead to irritation. Bacteria may grow in an unbalanced way and lead to an infection of the vagina too.

What you can do

Wash your labia and vaginal area regularly with mild soap and water. Washing removes bacteria while removing dead skin and dried sweat.

You should also:

  • Change gym clothes after your sweat session is over.
  • Avoid wearing wet pool clothes for hours after you get out of the pool.
  • Avoid wearing tight-fitting clothes frequently. Tight clothes don’t allow for air circulation around the vagina, and that can increase bacteria.
  • Wear cotton underwear, not ones made from synthetic materials like satin, silk, or polyester. Cotton wicks sweat and moisture away from your vagina, which can help prevent odor.

It’s not uncommon to forget a tampon for a few extra hours, but if you forgot one for a few extra days, you may smell the result. An old tampon can begin to smell of rotting onions in a few days.

Some people also suggest it smells like rotting meat. Either way, an old tampon certainly gives off a foul odor for most women.

What you can do

If the tampon has been in just a few hours or an extra day, you can remove it yourself. Wash the area around the vaginal opening with warm water and a mild soap. In the future, develop a way to remind yourself to check for a tampon. A tie around your wrist might help, or a phone alert can remind you to remove a tampon.

However, if you’re not sure how long the tampon has been in your vagina, or if it has been longer than two days, you may need to see your doctor. Tampons may fall apart as they’re removed. Your doctor can remove the tampon and make sure no pieces are left behind. They can also determine if you need any additional treatment, such as an antibiotic for an infection.

Typically, a vagina does a good job balancing healthy, normal bacteria with bad bacteria. From time to time, however, an imbalance can occur, and the bad bacteria may grow and upset the pH balance. When this occurs, it’s known as bacterial vaginosis (BV).

BV is very common. It’s most common during the reproductive years, but it can affect woman of any age.

Not all women experience symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they may include:

  • a thick discharge that’s white or gray
  • a strong fishy smell, especially after sex or a shower
  • itching

What you can do

If you’re experiencing symptoms of BV, make an appointment to see your healthcare provider. You need antibiotics to help restore the bacterial balance in your vagina. You can’t treat BV by yourself.

Keep in mind that antibiotics may make the odor from your vagina worse temporarily. Once you’re finished with the medicine, the infection should be gone, and the odor will disappear. If you are on antibiotics, replace the healthy bacteria by adding live yogurt to your diet.

Trichomoniasis (or “trich” for short) is an infection caused by a single-cell animal called a Trichomonas vaginalis. These microscopic organisms are transferred during sexual encounters, so trich is considered a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 3.7 million Americans are affected by trich. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with trich than men, and older women are more at risk than younger women.

Only about 30 percent of people with this infection develop symptoms. In addition to a strong vaginal odor, these may include:

  • discomfort during urination
  • unusual vaginal discharge
  • itching
  • burning
  • discomfort

What you can do

If you suspect you have a trich infection, you should make an appointment to see your doctor. You’ll need a prescription treatment to get rid of the parasites. It’s important that you take all of the medication to fully eliminate the infection.

A rectovaginal fistula is an abnormal opening between your rectum and your vagina. This occurs when the lower portion of your large intestine leaks into your vagina.

Bowel contents can leak through this fistula, and it may cause gas or stool to leave through your vagina. This can cause unusual odors, which you may mistake as vaginal odor.

Rectovaginal fistulas aren’t common. They’re often the result of an injury, such as during childbirth. Crohn’s disease and inflammatory bowel disease are also common causes.

The symptoms of a rectovaginal fistula depend on where the opening is and how large it is. For example, you may notice gas, stool, or pus coming from your vagina instead of your rectum. You may just smell an unusual odor if the opening is small.

You may also develop an infection around the opening, which may lead to fever, burning, itching, and irritation.

What you can do

If you suspect you have a fistula, make an appointment to see your doctor. They’ll perform a physical and pelvic exam to confirm the presence of the abnormal opening.

Surgery is the most common treatment for a fistula. Most people with a fistula will require surgery. Your doctor may also prescribe antibiotics to eliminate any infection or an anti-inflammatory medicine to reduce sensitivity and irritation.

You can still take steps to reduce the unwanted smell while you wait for a diagnosis. You should:

1. Wash your labia and groin regularly with soap and warm water. Be sure to thoroughly rinse the soap out of the opening of the vagina so you don’t further upset your natural pH balance.

2. Wear breathable fabrics, especially underwear. Cotton is the best choice. Avoid silk, satin, and polyester.

3. Don’t wear tight-fitting pants regularly. Your vagina naturally releases moisture all the time. If the moisture can’t escape because of clothes, the bacteria balance may be upset. This can lead to odor and irritation.

4. Avoid perfumed and scented washes. While you may think you’re helping the odor, you may be making it worse. Douches should be off limits too. They can eliminate good bacteria, and the balance may be upset. This can lead to vaginitis and irritation.

If your efforts to eliminate an unusual vaginal odor don’t seem to work, it may be time to see your doctor. If you don’t already have an OB-GYN, you can browse doctors in your area through the Healthline FindCare tool.

Likewise, if you begin to notice an unusual discharge or start running a fever, it’s time to make an appointment. While there are some steps you can take at home to eliminate odor, some odors may be the result of a serious issue that needs medical attention.

Proper care for your vagina can go a long way to preventing future problems, but if the problem seems bigger than you can handle, call your doctor. One visit may help eliminate a lot of questions and concern.