Here’s a fun fact: Vaginas are meant to smell like…vaginas. And while their natural scent might not be something you’d want in scented candle form, it is what it is.
That said, certain vaginal odors can indicate things like infections, especially if they come with a side of discharge that’s a different colour, consistency, or amount than what you’re used to, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
From totally basic to huge red flag, here’s are the most common scents and what they mean.
If you get a whiff of something that can only be described as really, really bad and you’ve also got a fever of 38º or higher, pain in your lower abdomen, or even painful sex, you could have pelvic inflammatory disease, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. PID is often caused by STIs like gonorrhoea and chlamydia when the sketchy bacteria move from the vagina or cervix into the uterus and other reproductive organs. This disease is no joke—it can cause infertility and chronic pain if left untreated—but it’s typically knocked out by antibiotics. Call your doctor ASAP if you feel any symptoms.
A healthy vag’s scent can vary based on your activity level. For example, it’s super normal for an intense spin class to make you mustier than usual, thanks to moisture released by sweat glands near your hoo-ha, says women’s health expert Dr. Jennifer Wider, M.D.
Still, if any scent really bothers you, it doesn’t hurt to call to your doctor to make sure it’s nothing serious. That’s because any out-of-the-ordinary or intolerable change could signal an infection, according to ACOG.
If your vagina gives off a strong, fishy odour that smells foul, you could be suffering from an infection, according to ACOG. If the odour increases right after sex or is accompanied by an increase in discharge, it might be bacterial vaginosis, a condition marked by an overgrowth of bacteria that upsets the vagina’s delicate pH balance. Or, if you notice green discharge, vaginal itching, and pain when you pee, you could have trichomoniasis, a common sexually transmitted disease. But don’t stress, both of these can be cleared up with antibiotics. Just see your doctor for treatment — and never resort to douching, since the practice is linked to hormonal disruptions, chronic disease, and reproductive and developmental problems as well as heightened risk of ovarian cancer.
Dr. Wider says lubricants or condoms can contribute to this this smell, which most women liken to chlorine or bleach, she says. Luckily, it’s nothing to be worried about—just restock your sex drawer with unscented lubes if it bothers you.
If your vagina’s scent du jour is vaguely metallic during your period, it’s chill. When the blood (aka your uterine lining) exits your vagina, it can give off this unique smell, but it’s not unhealthy, says Dr. Wider.
Anecdotally, your diet could affect the taste and scent of your vagina. For instance, citrus fruits like oranges, pineapple, and grapefruit have been known to sweeten the smell and taste of vaginal fluids, says Dr. Wider. On the other hand, onions, garlic, broccoli, and asparagus can cause what some describe as an ‘unpleasant’ odour and taste, she says. Hey, to each their own!
While a small amount of yeast usually chills up inside your vagina at all times, yeast infections occur when lubrications, spermicides, antibiotic use, or even pregnancy enable the fungi to overgrow, according to ACOG.
You’ll know something’s up if you notice a faint, bread-like smell along with cottage cheese-like discharge. Though this kind of infection is no biggie, check in with your doc to confirm your diagnosis. The good news: Most yeast infections can be cured with OTC anti-fungal medications, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but you can also get a prescription pill from your M.D.
This post originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com.
Read more body health.