What causes vaginal odor?

Unusually strong or persistent vaginal odor can be caused by a variety of diseases, disorders or conditions that affect the vagina, cervix, and other reproductive organs. Vaginal odor is commonly caused by an infection or inflammation of the vagina (vaginitis) or cervix (cervicitis). Vaginitis and cervicitis can be caused by sexually transmitted diseases, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, or other types of infections, such as a vaginal yeast infection or a bacterial infection.

The most common cause of vaginal odor is bacterial vaginosis (BV), which is associated with an overgrowth of certain bacteria in the vagina. The exact cause of BV is not known. The underlying causes of vaginal odor include:

  • Bacterial vaginosis (often caused by a Gardnerella vaginalis bacterial infection)

  • Chancroid (sexually transmitted disease caused by Haemophilus ducreyi)

  • Chlamydia (sexually transmitted disease caused by Chlamydia trachomatis)

  • Genital herpes (sexually transmitted disease caused by the herpes virus)

  • Gonorrhea (sexually transmitted disease caused by Neisseria gonorrhoeae)

  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID, which is a complication of several different sexually transmitted diseases)

  • Poor genital hygiene

  • Tampon left in the vagina for more than several hours

  • Trichomoniasis (sexually transmitted disease caused by the parasite Trichomonas vaginalis)

  • Vaginal yeast infection (vaginal thrush) caused by Candida albicans

What are the potential complications of vaginal odor?

In some cases, vaginal odor can be due to an underlying condition that can result in serious or life-threatening complications. You can minimize the risk of serious complications by seeking early medical care and following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of vaginal odor and some underlying causes include:

  • Birth defects, premature delivery, miscarriage, still birth, and life-threatening infections passed to unborn children during pregnancy and childbirth or through breast-feeding

  • Chronic pelvic pain

  • Difficulty getting pregnant and infertility

  • Ectopic pregnancy

  • Embarrassment

  • Higher risk of catching HIV/AIDS

  • Pelvic adhesions and scarring of the fallopian tubes

  • Spread of sexually transmitted diseases to sexual partners


  1. Vaginal discharge. FamilyDoctor.org. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/vaginal-discharge.html.
  2. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/STD/.
  3. Vaginal itching and discharge - child. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003159.htm.
  4. Vaginal Yeast Infections. Womenshealth.gov. http://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/vaginal-yeast-infections.html.

What is vaginal odor?

A woman’s vagina normally has a mild odor, but inflammation or infection of the vagina or cervix can result in an unusually strong, persistent or bad vaginal smell that is often described as a fish-like odor.

Vaginal odor can result from a variety of conditions and diseases that include:


What other symptoms might occur with vaginal odor?

Abnormal vaginal odor is often described as a strong fish-like smell that may become worse or more noticeable after sexual intercourse. Vaginal odor may occur with other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. For example, vaginal odor due to an infection that causes pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) may occur with Read more about vaginal odorsymptoms

Medical Reviewer: Cynthia Haines, MD Last Annual Review Date: Aug 11, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.