Yeast infections are common and often easily treated. While an abnormal smell is often associated with various infections, this is generally not the case with vaginal yeast infections.

According to the Office on Women’s Health, 3 out of 4 women will get a yeast infection at some point in their lives. This condition occurs when there’s a sudden overgrowth of yeast in the vagina due to an imbalance of bacteria.

These cells naturally live in the vagina but they only cause an issue when the bacterial balance is disturbed. This can happen for a variety of reasons, including:

  • birth control pills
  • pregnancy
  • compromised immune system
  • antibiotics

Yeast infections typically don’t cause any noticeable vaginal odors, which sets them apart from other vaginal infections. If there’s an odor, it’s usually rather mild and yeasty.

There are other symptoms associated with a yeast infection, including:

  • burning or swelling of the vulva
  • pain with urination
  • pain with sex
  • generalized soreness of the vaginal area
  • thick, white, odor-free discharge

These symptoms can range from mild to severe. You might have one or more and they can vary with each yeast infection.

If you notice a smell, it’s most likely not because of a yeast infection. There are other conditions that can cause a variety of vaginal odors. Here are four common causes:

1. Bacterial vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis, or BV, occurs when there’s an overgrowth of naturally occurring bacteria in the vagina. You might experience:

  • burning
  • itching
  • a thin, light-colored discharge that’s gray, white, or green
  • a “fishy” odor

2. Trichomoniasis

Also called trich, this is a common sexually transmitted infection that usually has no symptoms and is easily treated with antibiotics. When symptoms are present, they often include:

  • frothy vaginal discharge that’s white, gray, yellow, or green and has an unpleasant odor
  • vaginal spotting or bleeding
  • genital burning, itching, or swelling
  • frequent urge to urinate
  • pain with urination
  • pain with sex

3. Sweat

The vaginal area sweats because it has lots of sweat glands and hair follicles. It’s only natural since sweating is how your body cools itself.

Your vagina cleans itself and has a natural musky odor but poor hygiene and other factors can sometimes cause an odor that’s unpleasant or simply abnormal for you.

Maintaining good hygiene and changing underwear daily can help remove dead skin cells, dirt, and sweat from the vaginal area, all of which can contribute to odors.

4. Forgotten tampon

If you’ve forgotten a tampon inside your vagina and it’s been a few days, you’ll start to notice an unpleasant smell, similar to rotting meat or strong onions. This is due to bacteria and possibly infection depending on how long it’s been in there.

Take the tampon out immediately. Call your doctor immediately if you have any other symptoms, such as:

  • fever
  • headache
  • confusion
  • diarrhea
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • low blood pressure

These could be signs of a serious infection called toxic shock syndrome.

Yeast infection treatment | Yeast infection treatment

Many women try to treat yeast infections themselves. But, 2 out of 3 women who buy yeast infection medication don’t actually have a yeast infection. If you’re unsure about whether you have a yeast infection, see your doctor. They’ll be able to tell and recommend treatment options.

Simple yeast infections are treated with a course of antifungal cream, tablet, or suppository for one to three days. They can either be over-the-counter or prescribed by your doctor. You may need a different treatment if:

  • your yeast infection is more serious
  • you’ve had more than four in one year
  • you’re pregnant
  • you have an autoimmune disease

That treatment may include:

  • a 14-day cream or suppository
  • several doses of oral medication, like fluconazole
  • a long-term prescription of oral medication
  • topical antifungal cream

Talk with your doctor about the decided course of action for your yeast infection, why they chose it, and why it’s the best choice for you.

Each person is different, and brings different symptoms and health histories to the doctor. They’ll be able to let you know why they chose your treatment.

Here are some ways to keep your vagina clean and dry to help keep odors at bay:

  • Wash regularly with a washcloth and mild soap.
  • Change out of sweaty exercise clothes and wet bathing suits as soon as you can.
  • Wear cotton underwear.
  • Wear loose clothing.

If you have an odor or itching that won’t go away, see your doctor immediately. Many who think they have a yeast infection actually have a different kind of infection.

Getting an early diagnosis can help clear up your yeast infection and alleviate any symptoms. Your doctor will be able to do a physical exam and take any samples of discharge to send out to a lab for a clinical diagnosis, if necessary.

If you’ve already tried treating your yeast infection with over-the-counter treatments and they haven’t helped or you’re getting recurrent yeast infections, see your doctor. You might need stronger treatment or it might not be a yeast infection at all.