Aunt Vadge: my vagina smells like something died in it

Hi Aunt Vadge, 

I’ve started to notice this disgusting something-died smell in my woohoo area. I noticed it two or three periods ago. I use tampons and I’ve never forgotten a tampon up there, but not long before I put one in, it starts to smell weird down there.

I shower everyday and my diet is ok (a typical college student diet) so I don’t know what the problem is. I really don’t want to stop using tampons because they’re really comfortable, more comfortable than pads.

Please help Auntie!

Yours,
Scented
USA
Age 19

Hi there Scented,

It sounds like you have an infection or bacterial imbalance – some of the smelliest bacteria come from bacterial vaginosis (see our book on treating bacterial vaginosis at home), aerobic vaginosis, gonorrhoea or trich, but you must get tested, because the treatments are different for each.

It’s impossible to know what’s wrong without getting tested, so you can make sure you are treating the right problem – not all bacteria are alike. Your condition may be a bacterial imbalance that may respond very well to treatments you can do at home or a round of antibiotics, though avoid these where you can because antibiotic resistance is a huge issue. If you have an STI, you definitely need more than a home remedy, but a test will determine this.

Most common bacteria that cause a smelly vagina:

Your vaginal smell is probably not caused by:

  • A yeast infection – yeast doesn’t cause bad smells, ever
  • A virus – viruses don’t cause these types of smells (like herpes, HPV)
  • Chlamydia

Once you have a diagnosis, then you can consider your treatment options. Your doctor will have recommendations, but a test result is what you need before anything else. If it’s BV, treatments at home can be very effective, as there are some very stubborn, antibiotic resistant bacteria out there. All these bacteria also create biofilms, which can mean your problem goes away after antibiotics or other home remedies, but then comes back around your period or after sex, making you think you ‘keep getting it’, when actually the problem didn’t go away.

If it’s a sexually transmitted infection, you’ll probably need antibiotics, but they’ll clear it up for good. Any sexual partners also need to be treated, including if it’s BV or AV – bacterial biofilms live in and on penises too.

Smells are almost always caused by bacteria, and that could be very easily fixed, but you need to be examined to make sure it is not something more insidious. The other reason things smell like something died up there is because it is rotting flesh or blood – dead-things smell – like the smell of a lost tampon. You should be able to find a sexual health clinic that can test for you (cheap or free), and there should be something available to you on your college campus. Ask around.

You won’t have to stop using tampons unless the problem is something tampon-related by some stroke of misfortune where you react badly to your tampon brand (try organic). Your vaginal pH changes around your period, and bad bacteria thrive in the more alkaline conditions, which can exacerbate the smells, which then resolve after your period. Bacteria also thrive in iron-rich environments, as they require iron to survive, so having your period blood around can make the problem worse. You can read more about how bacteria use iron in our BV and iron article. This is how all bacteria work, including BV bacteria.

You may find that during the month, the smell is there, but just not quite as bad. You can test by inserting a clean, dry finger or smelling your underwear crotch after a day wearing them.

Write anytime!

Warmest regards,
Aunt Vadge