What to do when your period smells like death

Having period blood that smells like something died inside your vagina can be terrifying and gross, but there are reasons why this happens and things you can do about it. The first element, however, is to understand the problem so you can treat yourself correctly.

Why your vagina and period blood smells like death

The reason your vagina smells like death is because there is an overgrowth of the wrong sort of bacteria, but the cause of that we are not sure of at this point.

Maybe you put a tampon in and forgot about it (or put another one in on top – it happens more often than you might think!). You may also have bacterial vaginosis, which is a bacterial imbalance where the baddies overrun the goodies.

The bad smell comes from the same process that occurs when meat is left to rot – bacteria go to work. Bacteria cause bad smells – if you put a piece of meat in a bacteria-less vacuum, it doesn’t smell bad.

What can be incredibly confusing is why now. The types of bacteria you have in your vagina is unknowable without a test, but there are a few options to help you narrow it down.

What to do first:

It’s important to know what you are dealing with before trying treatments to solve it. You need to ask yourself a few key questions and use a process of elimination.

  1. Have you lost a tampon or something else inside your vagina? (Condoms, tampons, tissue, etc.) – Could be foreign object that is acting as bacteria food
  2. Have you had unprotected sex with a new partner recently? – Could be BV or AV or STI

A lost or forgotten tampon (or something else?)

A leftover tampon is a common cause of period that smells like death, and an easy one to fix. Squat down and put a finger or two as far into your vagina as you can and wiggle your fingers. If you have got a lost tampon, it’ll likely be really soft and on its side, making it even harder to detect – and remove. Read our instructions on finding a lost tampon. 

If you are satisfied that you have not lost a tampon or tissue or other item, move on to the next option. If you think you maybe do have something inside your vagina that you can’t get out, you may need to approach a sexual health clinic nurse, your doctor, or the emergency room to help you.

You have a bacterial imbalance or an infection

When the wrong bacteria colonise your vagina, they change the way your vagina smells and behaves for the worse. This is usually called bacterial vaginosis (BV) or aerobic vaginitis (AV). The normal healthy bacteria are lactobacilli, but they may have been displaced by bad bacteria, leaving your vagina in an unhappy state.

You may experience bad smells and slightly unusual discharge, itch, soreness, redness or inflammation (or no symptoms), but if you have your period, you may not have noticed that something was wrong until now.

That’s because your period changes your vaginal ecosystem, and bad bacteria can thrive in your period blood for two reasons: the pH is better for bad bacteria and the iron in your blood feeds microbes.

There is a chance that after your period, the ‘bloom’ of bad bacteria will shrink and your vagina will go back to ‘normal’. Consider this a warning shot, however, that your vagina has lurkers and malingerers, and next period they are likely to come back out again. You need to address this. See suggestions in managing a bad smelling vagina. 

The bad bacteria may have already been in your vagina or you may have a sexually transmitted infection. If it’s impossible for you to have an STI, then you almost certainly have a bacterial imbalance.

The most likely causes of STI smells are gonorrhoea and trich, as other sexually transmitted infections don’t typically smell bad. It’s also important to note that AV and BV can be sexually transmitted, but are not officially considered sexually transmitted infections (yet).

What to do about a vagina that smells like death

You first need to establish the cause, and that is going to mean going to get a test to see what is overgrowing in your vagina. You are likely to be prescribed antibiotics, which you can take advice regarding depending on the diagnosis.

If it was a lost tampon, then the problem should resolve itself after you fish it out. If it’s BV or AV, you need to figure out what the next step of treatment will be, since antibiotics work only about half the time. If you have an STI, you need to know one way or another, and adhere to the proper treatment.

Treatments for BV and AV – after a correct diagnosis from your doctor – can be found in Killing BV (see Bookshop), our naturopathic guide on treating BV permanently. You cannot cure an STI at home. Tips for clearing up a smelly vagina that has no detected bacteria can be found in tools and tips for clearing up a non-infected smelly vagina.

Jessica Lloyd - Naturopathic Practitioner, BHSc(N)

Jessica Lloyd - Naturopathic Practitioner, BHSc(N)

Jessica is a degree-qualified naturopath (BHSc) specialising in vulvovaginal health and disease, based in Melbourne, Australia.

Jessica is the owner and lead naturopath of My Vagina, and is a member of:

  • International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease (ISSVD)
  • International Society for the Study of Women's Sexual Health (ISSWSH)
  • National Vulvodynia Association (NVA) Australia
  • New Zealand Vulvovaginal Society (ANZVS)
  • Australian Traditional Medicine Society (ATMS)
Jessica Lloyd - Naturopathic Practitioner, BHSc(N)

Latest posts by Jessica Lloyd - Naturopathic Practitioner, BHSc(N) (see all)