Everyone’s vagina has a natural odor and taste. It changes during different phases of the menstrual cycle and after sex. However, if it starts to smell coppery or fishy, it’s not normal.

A coppery odor indicates blood, which is a sign of some health issues. A tangy or sour aroma is caused by the good bacteria in your body, lactobacilli.

1. Bacterial Vaginosis

Most of the time, your vulva has a pleasant smell, thanks to a type of bacteria called lactobacilli that keeps the pH levels balanced. These bacteria also keep the lining healthy and help prevent infections. But sometimes, the odor changes to a coppery, fishy or skunk-like aroma that could be a red flag for a medical problem.

A strong chemical odor can be due to residual urine, especially when you are sick or injured. If you have a lot of discharge that smells like ammonia, wash it off immediately and visit your gynecologist. A fishy odor can also be caused by bacterial vaginosis or trichomoniasis, the most common and easily treatable sexually transmitted infection. Typically, it is accompanied by other symptoms, including itching and burning when you urinate or painful urination after intercourse.

Another reason your vagina may have a fishy scent is because you’ve left a tampon in for too long. This can produce a foul odor that smells like rotting meat, which is not normal. If you have this odor, remove the tampon and see your gynecologist.

A skunky smell can be a sign of emotional stress or over-exercising. Your apocrine glands, which populate your armpits and groin, release odourless sweat in times of intense emotion. When these glands are overactive and sweat mixes with the abundant flora of bacteria in your vagina, it can result in a pungent odor that is similar to the odour of a skunk.

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2. Body Odor

As a warm, dark place that houses beneficial bacteria and holds cervical fluid made from glands within it, your vulva is home to its own delicately balanced ecosystem. That’s why it’s normal for the odor down there to change throughout the day, especially after exercise and sexual intercourse.

A coppery or tinny smell may indicate that the pH balance is out of whack. Washing your vulva with soap—especially strong-smelling varieties—will throw the balance further out of whack. If the odor doesn’t go away after washing your vulva, try using an over-the-counter “pH warfare” gel that’s designed to rebalance and nix the smell.

If your vagina has a fishy odor and feels irritated or itchy after you pee, you may have BV or another infection called trichomoniasis. These conditions, if left untreated, can lead to more serious health issues in your uterus or fallopian tubes.

A skunky or sweat-like scent can be normal and a sign of your body’s natural detox process during emotional stress. Sweat from the apocrine glands that are found in your armpits and groin react with vaginal bacteria to produce the odour. Wearing cotton underwear and avoiding foods that can cause body odour can help reduce the odour. Sweating is also a normal part of menstruation, pregnancy and menopause. However, if the odour doesn’t stop after trying simple hygienic or lifestyle changes, it’s best to see your doctor for a diagnosis.

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3. Emotional Stress

Your vagina is filled with good bacteria and produces cervical fluid that is made by glands inside it. These healthy microbes release products that maintain the normal pH levels in the vulva and give it its own distinct smell. Most people find that their vulva has a tangy or fermented aroma, similar to the smell of yogurt or sour beer. The odor is completely normal and doesn’t indicate any underlying issues.

If your vulva odor is stronger and more chemical-like, it may be a sign of an infection. This could be a urinary tract infection (UTI) or one of the sexually transmitted infections (STIs), like chlamydia. If this is the case, you should see your doctor to get diagnosed and treated.

It’s also possible that your vulva is smelling because of emotional stress. This is because our apocrine sweat glands are more active when we’re stressed, and they can release an unpleasant odor through the vagina.

Another cause of a strong skunky vaginal odor is bleeding. During menstruation, blood is shed from the uterus lining and travels through the vagina. This blood contains iron, which has a metallic smell. In some cases, the smell can be overwhelming and similar to body odor. Thankfully, this is a temporary condition that usually resolves on its own once the menstrual cycle has ended.

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4. Trimethylamine

The smell of your vagina may occasionally resemble a tangy, fermented or sour odor. This is normal, and it is actually a good sign because healthy vaginas are dominated by bacteria called lactobacilli that create this type of odour. This helps to maintain the natural acidity of your vagina, which is 3.8 to 4.5 for non-menopausal women and slightly lower for those in menopause, which keeps harmful bacteria at bay.

Sometimes your vulva can even smell a bit like skunk, which is also quite normal. This is due to sweating that occurs through the apocrine glands located in your armpits and groin as a response to emotional stress. This sweat mixes with the abundant vaginal bacteria that covers your vulva to produce the pungent odour.

If your vulva is frequently smelling fishy, it could indicate an infection, usually bacterial vaginosis or the sexually transmitted infection, trichomoniasis. Both of these infections are curable with antibiotics, so if you notice this odour, see your doctor to get the right treatment.

In some cases, your vulva can also smell a little bit like bleach, which is not normal and does raise a red flag. The reason for this is that your liver breaks down proteins and turns them into ammonia, which then leaves the body through urine (which has a slight ammonia scent). If you are noticing a strong odour of ammonia down there, it is likely a sign of dehydration, so try drinking more water to see if the odour subsides.