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Have you noticed that your vagina hasn't been smelling very nicely lately, or have you detected an unpleasant odor around your partner's genitals? A sexually transmitted infection may be your first guess, but unpleasant odors have many other causes too. 

Bacterial Vaginosis 

Bacterial vaginosis is a disruption in the normal vaginal bacterial flora that causes certain bacteria to "take over". It is not considered a sexually transmitted disease, but intercourse with multiple partners does increase a woman's risk of developing bacterial vaginosis. 

Bacterial vaginosis often leads to a distinct, fishy vaginal odor. It can also cause a liquid gray or white vaginal discharge, vaginal itching and discomfort, and a burning feeling while urinating.

Having bacterial vaginosis leaves women more vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. It cannot be passed onto male partners but may be passed onto female partners. Bacterial vaginosis sometimes clears up on its own, or it may require treatment with antibiotics. 

Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis, often shortened to "trich", is a sexually transmitted parasitic infection. 

Women who have trich may have itchy, sore, and red genitals, as well as experiencing a burning sensation, especially while urinating. They may also notice altered vaginal discharge. While this discharge is not always obviously alarming, it can be — green or yellow discharge is a definite red flag.

Trichomoniasis may, again, lead to a nasty fishy smell around the vagina. 

Men with trich may notice unusual penile discharge, burning sensations while urinating or ejaculating, and an itchy penis. 

Any person who recognizes these symptoms should seek treatment. Trich is treated with oral medication. 

Cervical Cancer

Foul-smelling vaginal odors cause many people to suspect a sexually transmitted infection, but cervical cancer can also lead to smelly vaginal discharge. The vaginal discharge associated with cervical cancer will further contain blood, causing it to be pink, brown, or blood-stained. 

Other symptoms of cervical cancer that should lead any woman who recognize them to seek immediate medical attention include:

  • Bleeding between periods 
  • Bleeding after sexual intercourse
  • Heavy and prolonged menstrual periods
  • Fatigue
  • Spontaneous weight loss
  • Pain in the leg, pelvis, or back
  • One swollen leg
  • Urine or stool coming from the vagina
Timely diagnosis and treatment improves the prognosis, so contact your doctor right away if you recognize more than a few of these symptoms. 

Other Causes Of Foul Vaginal Odors

People often wonder whether a yeast infection can lead to strong vaginal odors. Interestingly enough, they don't usually lead to foul-smelling discharge — but whether a smell is unpleasant or not is somewhat subjective. Yeast infections are associated with thick, white vaginal discharge that causes itching and slightly resembles cottage cheese. It may have a yeasty smell, which some people may interpret as unpleasant. Yeast infections can, on occasion, be passed on to male partners. 

Menstrual periods and poor hygiene are simpler causes of a nasty vaginal odor.

Women and their partners may be able to detect vague smells of blood and other menstrual fluids a couple of days after the woman's menstrual period has come to an end. The cause is entirely physiological and nothing to worry about. 

A foul odor naturally appears — I daresay all over the body — if a person hasn't washed in a few days, and the vagina is no exception. Warm weather speeds this process up. 

One final possible cause of a foul vaginal odor is the prolonged presence of a foreign object, such as a tampon or a condom. This can lead to symptoms such as fever and pelvic pain as well. 

The Bottom Line

If you have noticed that your vagina smells bad and you have no reasonable explanation, go to your doctor — especially if you also recognize some of the other symptoms we mentioned. If you notice that your partner's vagina smells bad, encourage her to see a doctor, and also get tested for sexually transmitted diseases yourself. 

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