Vaginal Odor and Its Causes

Infection located within or around the vagina can cause inflammation in the vaginal area and the development of vaginal odor.  Often described as a “fishy” aroma, vaginal odor is an abnormal scent coming from the vagina. It is typically accompanied by other conditions that can include itching, irritation, and even vaginal discharge.

Specific Causes

A healthy vagina consists of the body naturally balancing several types of “good” bacteria (lactobacilli) that are necessary and naturally exist in the vagina. While the bacteria considered “bad” (anaerobes) is characteristically outnumbered by the lactobacilli, when one of the anaerobes experiences an overgrowth, bacterial vaginosis, an inflammation in the vaginal area, will develop and can also create a distinct odor.

Even though bacterial vaginosis is found in higher quantities among women who are of reproductive age, it can affect any woman. Thus far, doctors have not been able to determine why it develops, but women at the highest risks are those who practice douching frequently and those who engage in unprotected sex. In addition to the symptoms mentioned above, other signs are pain during intercourse, a burning sensation while urinating, and light vaginal bleeding. However, some women have bacterial vaginosis and are asymptomatic (they won’t experience any symptoms or have any signs).

A doctor’s visit is in order if vaginal symptoms begin and you: never had an infection, have had infections but are experiencing new symptoms, started having sex with a new partner, have had sex recently with multiple partners (please note the symptoms could also be derived from an STD), have been self-treating a yeast infection, have a fever, and of course if you have an unpleasant feminine odor.

Another possible cause for vaginal odor is pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). This particular infection is within the reproductive organs. If a bacterium that has been sexually transmitted manages to travel from the vagina to the upper genital tract and the uterus, it can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease.

The signs and symptoms for pelvic inflammatory disease are pain in the lower abdomen, pain in the pelvis, low back pain, heavy vaginal discharge, an unpleasant odor from the vagina, irregular bleeding during menstruation, pain during intercourse, fever, fatigue, difficult urination, diarrhea, vomiting, or no symptoms at all! Because pelvic inflammatory disease is another asymptomatic disease, someone with pelvic inflammatory disease can be symptom free, however being asymptomatic to PID is often associated with the infection being present due to Chlamydia. It is commonly detected in asymptomatic women once they have trouble becoming pregnant, or if they have chronic pelvic pain.

A trip to the nearest emergency room is recommended for those who are experiencing severe signs and symptoms of pelvic inflammatory disease such as vomiting, shock, fainting, severe pain low in the abdomen and fever.

If the symptoms are consistent but not severe, a doctor’s appointment should be made for the soonest availability. In addition to pelvic inflammatory disease and the other diseases mentioned here, vaginal odor with discharge can also be a result of a sexually transmitted infection (STI), so can painful urination and bleeding between menstrual cycles. If these signs and symptoms appear, stop having sex and see a doctor. The faster one receives treatment for a sexually transmitted infection, the better their chances of preventing pelvic inflammatory disease.

Avoiding a sexually transmitted infection is always the best route to take; having unprotected sex (with one or more partners) increases the chances of acquiring a (sexually transmitted infection). Certain contraceptives have a direct affect on the risks of developing pelvic inflammatory disease. An IUD (intrauterine device) can add to the possibility of developing PID while a condom reduces the risk. The birth control pill have no protection against sexually transmitted infections, however they may help prevent this disease because they make the body produce thick cervical mucus that makes it challenging for bacteria to reach the upper genital tract.

A strong fishy odor can also be the result of a sexually transmitted disease (STD) called trichomoniasis. This particular STD is known to have a foul-smelling vaginal discharge, painful urination and genital itching. Pregnant women with trichomoniasis are at a high risk of delivering prematurely.

While the trichomoniasis infection can be prevented with the use of spermicide and condoms, once the infection does exist both parties will need to be treated. Men do not typically have any symptoms or signs, if they do it's usually painful urination. Symptoms or not, it is imperative that all parties be treated in order to prevent an occurring of re-infection. The treatment itself is one of the faster ones, and only involves taking one megadose of metronidazole (Flagyl). 

Trichomoniasis is caused by a tiny parasite that is one-celled (protozoa), that travels from one person to the next during sexual intercourse. The incubation period between exposure and infection can range from 5 to 28 days. The signs and symptoms of trichomoniasis include:

A vaginal odor that is usually foul-smelling.

Vaginal discharge - which may be green, yellow, gray, or white.

Burning in the genital area.

Redness, and itching in the genitals.

Pain with urination.

Pain during sexual intercourse.

A doctor will be able to determine what is causing the vaginal odor and help rid you of the issue as opposed to you continuously trying to disguise it, fear it or run away from it. According to most studies, the reasoning behind the majority of feminine odor can be very simplistic and easily treatable.

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