As comedian Amy Schumer has wisely pointed out, men are rarely concerned about how their bodies smell (or taste), while women are frequently consumed by it.
But Dr. Kelly Culwell, an OB-GYN and former medical officer at the World Health Organization, believes that this is just one more unfair standard women apply to themselves.
“I think women sometimes don’t want to smell like anything because society talks about vaginas being smelly,” Culwell says. “But there are a fair number of times that women come in complaining of odors when really everything’s completely normal and it’s just that I think they’re uncomfortable with what a normal vagina smells like.”
Culwell says that the vagina is a living, working, bacteria-filled system, and although there are some smells that can signal a more serious infection, most are completely normal.
The first step toward figuring out if there’s cause for concern is identifying what’s typical for your own body. “Everyone’s sort of normal odor is going to be a little bit different,” Culwell says. “There are some odors that are concerning, and for the most part, what I tell people is: if something seems out of the ordinary, that’s when you should probably have it checked out.”
But in the event that something does seem out of the ordinary, it helps to know what to look for. Here’s a guide to common smells, and which ones you should monitor.
Depending on where you are in your cycle, a musky smell is probably normal and not necessarily a sign of infection. You might notice it after a sweaty workout or when you’re wearing tight underwear. Culwell adds that you may also notice a musky scent after sex, and especially sex without a condom. “When the ejaculate gets into the vagina, it raises the pH level of the vagina and that can change the balance of the bacteria.” This, she says, can affect the smell.
Although some women might assume that a yeasty smell is a sign of a yeast infection, Culwell says that this is usually not the case. “There’s a yeasty smell that’s almost like baking bread, and that’s not necessarily a sign of a yeast infection. I’ve never noticed that to be associated with anything particularly abnormal. Sometimes, women in different parts of their cycle might just have that kind of smell.”
Women sometimes smell a “tinny” or metallic smell on or around their periods. “There’s this old blood smell from when blood oxidizes. If your period is sort of light at the end, blood will sometimes sit in your vagina. That oxidized blood can give off that particular odor, and it’s usually normal.”
One smell to monitor is a fishy smell, which can be a sign of bacterial vaginosis. “Sometimes the vagina will have a mild fishy odor that can come from exercising or not being able to shower,” Culwell says. “However, if this smell is persistent, overwhelming, and accompanied by discharge, it could be cause for concern.” She adds that “an overwhelming smell is frequently a sign of bacterial vaginosis, which is an overgrowth of ‘bad’ bacteria in your vagina.” Make sure to watch out for odors accompanied by discharges, which can be a sign of a more serious infection like a cervical infection, chlamydia, or gonorrhea.