Pregnancy is such an exciting and frightening time. Your mind and body go through so many changes–and your vagina is no exception.

Whether pregnant or not, it’s very common to worry about vaginal odor; one study suggested that up to two thirds of those with vaginas have worried about how they smell or taste down there (Vagisil, 2019).

We’re here to talk about what’s normal, what isn’t, and how you can treat vaginal odor safely during pregnancy.

Normal Vaginal Scent

Let’s talk about discharge! Discharge is also known as leukorrhea–and by now, you probably know that your own vagina has a “normal” or usual scent. This scent might be (Wojick, 2020): 

  • Tangy
  • Fermented
  • Metallic (especially in relation to menstruation or light bleeding after sex)
  • Earthy-sweet or anywhere in-between!

You might also know that your discharge has a usual consistency that’s somewhere between transparent, white, and slightly yellow.

You’ll probably notice a lot more discharge at different parts of your menstrual cycle, and it may change slightly in consistency or color, particularly during ovulation. All of this is totally normal! (Bumrungrad International Hospital, 2020)

During pregnancy, you’ll also notice a lot more discharge that’s heavier and stickier than usual; in fact, you may even notice it before you know you’re pregnant! If the scent does change, it may be more “metallic or salty” than usual (Polomeno, 2000).

That’s also totally normal (and the increase in vaginal discharge may also make you itchier). 

What Causes Vaginal Odor During Pregnancy? 

Hormonal changes and increased vaginal discharge are common causes of unpleasant vaginal odor during pregnancy. These hormonal fluctuations can alter the pH balance of the vagina, leading to an environment that may foster the growth of bacteria or yeast, potentially resulting in vaginitis.

When Vaginal Odor During Pregnancy Is a Problem

As your vaginal flora changes during pregnancy, you are also at a greater risk for infections. Infections can include vaginitis–a broad classification of vaginal infections that can be sexually transmitted or not–or a urinary tract infection (UTI).

Vaginitis types and their smells

  • Yeast infection. While extra vaginal itchiness can be totally normal during pregnancy, it can also be a sign of a yeast infection. You’ll notice a clumpy appearance to your discharge–a bit like cottage cheese (Spence & Melville, 2007) --and it will smell a bit like bread or yeast.
  • Bacterial Vaginosis. The smell associated with bacterial vaginosis can be described as “chemical” like ammonia–although this can also be a result of a urine smell, often due to dehydration. BV discharge might also be thin and milky (Cleveland Clinic, 2018), and smell just a little bit like fish (Livengood, 2009). 
  • Trichomoniasis (“Trich”). If you have a much stronger fishy scent to your discharge, you’re more likely to be experiencing the sexually transmitted infection Trichomoniasis. Look for a greenish-yellow color to your discharge (Cleveland Clinic, 2018).
  • Genital herpes. While the telltale sign of herpes is sores or bumps on your genitals, discharge from herpes can also look abnormal. This abnormality can vary, but it may smell fishy or foul, and you may notice a change in color and/or a thick or chunky texture (Zimlich, 2022).
  • Chlamydia. Chlamydia–the most common STI–is generally accompanied by your discharge smelling a lot stronger than usual. Your discharge might be white, yellow, or gray (Cleveland Clinic, 2021). 
  • Gonorrhea. Discharge from gonorrhea does not typically smell–or when it does, it may just have a stronger scent as in chlamydia. The discharge may be thick and green or yellow (NHS Health A to Z, 2021). 

Urinary Tract Infections

UTIs (commonly called bladder infections) are not a type of vaginitis, as they’re an infection of the urethra, not the vagina. You do not have a higher risk of developing a UTI when pregnant.

However, due to hormonal changes caused by pregnancy, those who do get a UTI are about 40% more likely to develop complications including a kidney infection, premature birth, or low birth weight (Matuszkiewicz-Rowińska, Małyszko, & Wieliczko, 2015). 

Forgotten Tampon

If you’re experiencing a forgotten tampon, the smell will likely be horrible as though something is rotting. But try not to worry about it; OBGYNs frequently report that retrieving forgotten tampons from their patients is way, way more common than you’d think.

There is a high risk of infection when you leave your tampon in too long, but Toxic Shock Syndrome associated with tampon use is actually very rare (Levi, 2022).

Vaginal Odor and Stress

There’s one vaginal odor we haven’t covered yet: one that smells skunky, swampy, or sweaty. This can be especially common in summertime months or after the gym–after all, there are tons of sweat glands around your vagina! 

This is often normal and can be resolved with plenty of gentle washing and loose-fitting panties. However, if your vagina chronically smells a little musky, you may be under extra emotional stress lately (Wojick, 2020). It’s still normal, but make sure you’re taking care of your mental health, too–doubly so if you’re carrying a baby.

Safe Remedies for Vaginal Odor During Pregnancy

As with many other infections, the best cure for vaginal odors caused by infection in pregnancy is prevention. The increase in leukorrhea during pregnancy is a way to fight off vaginal or urinary infections.

However, given the pregnant body’s sensitivity to infection, your discharge may need a little extra help fighting off sickness.  

You can practice excellent vaginal hygiene by: 

  • Engaging in safe bathroom habits
  • Showering regularly
  • Hydrating often
  • Wearing loose-fitting cotton underwear and loose clothing
  • Practicing safe sex

You will also want to be extra cautious in the products and items you use in and around your vagina. Some intimate toys may not be appropriate for use during pregnancy, so make sure you ask your care team if you have any concerns about the products you use.

Once you have an infection, contact your doctor immediately. You will usually need an antibiotic or antifungal medication to treat your specific condition. Your doctor will be sure to prescribe you something that has a long record of safety both for you and your baby (Norwitz & Greenberg, 2009).

You might also ask your doctor about adding probiotics to your medication regimen to help encourage healthy bacteria; these are generally safe and carry no risks for you or your baby (Elias, Bozzo, & Einarson, 2011).

You might also ask your doctor about using boric acid, which has shown promise in treating and preventing many forms of vaginitis; it is not generally safe during the first trimester of pregnancy, but your doctor may give you approval to use it in the second and third trimesters (Iavazzo et al, 2011).

Conclusion

During the tumultuous changes that come to your vagina (and your whole body!) while you’re pregnant, it’s extra important to practice good vaginal hygiene and ask your care team if you have any questions about what sex activities or toys are appropriate or inappropriate to engage in.

It’s also OK to ask your OBGYN any questions you have about your vaginal discharge and odor–especially during pregnancy when there is so much to consider about the health of both you and your baby. 

But to soothe your anxieties a little: the answer is usually going to be yes, your vaginal aroma is totally normal. When it isn’t normal, you’ll know; it will likely smell fishy, chemical, “foul”, or have a significant change in normal appearance.

If that’s the case, contact your doctor right away and get tested for vaginitis or other infections. Your doctor will be able to recommend treatment that’s safe for both you and your baby.

References

  1. Vagisil (2019). Survey: More than Two-Thirds of Millennial Women Have Turned Down Sex Because of Concerns About Vaginal Scent. Cision PR Newswire. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/survey-more-than-two-thirds-of-millennial-women-have-turned-down-sex-because-of-concerns-about-vaginal-scent-300904624.html 
  2. Polomeno, V. (2000). Sex and Pregnancy: A Perinatal Educator's Guide. The Journal of perinatal education, 9(4), 15–27. https://doi.org/10.1624/105812400X87879 
  3. Wojcik, G (2020). Molasses to Pennies: All the Smells a Healthy Vagina Can Be. Healthline [Medically reviewed by Holly Ernst, PA-C]. https://www.healthline.com/health/womens-health/vagina-smells 
  4. Bumrungrad International Hospital (2020). It Is Normal to Have Vaginal Discharge but Certain Sign and Symptoms Should Guide You to Seek Care from a Health Professional. Bumrungrad International Hospital Health Blog. https://www.bumrungrad.com/en/health-blog/june-2020/leukorrhea 
  5. Spence, D., & Melville, C. (2007). Vaginal discharge. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 335(7630), 1147–1151. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39378.633287.80 
  6. Cleveland Clinic (2018). Vaginitis: Causes, symptoms, treatments & prevention. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9131-vaginitis 
  7. Livengood C. H. (2009). Bacterial vaginosis: an overview for 2009. Reviews in obstetrics & gynecology, 2(1), 28–37. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2672999/ 
  8. Cleveland Clinic (2021). Chlamydia: Causes, symptoms, treatments & prevention. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/4023-chlamydia 
  9. NHS Health A to Z (2021). Gonorrhoea. National Health Service of the United Kingdom. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/gonorrhoea/ 
  10. Zimlich, R. (2022). How to Recognize and Deal With Herpes Discharge. VeryWellHealth [Medically reviewed by Jamin Brahmbhatt, MD]. https://www.verywellhealth.com/herpes-discharge-5221155 
  11. Matuszkiewicz-Rowińska, J., Małyszko, J., & Wieliczko, M. (2015). Urinary tract infections in pregnancy: old and new unresolved diagnostic and therapeutic problems. Archives of medical science : AMS, 11(1), 67–77. https://doi.org/10.5114/aoms.2013.39202 
  12. Levi, A. (2022). How Dangerous Is It to Leave a Tampon in Your Vagina? Health [Medically reviewed by Peter Weiss, MD]. https://www.health.com/condition/menstruation/how-long-can-tampon-stay-in-vagina 
  13. Norwitz, E. R., & Greenberg, J. A. (2009). Antibiotics in pregnancy: are they safe?. Reviews in obstetrics & gynecology, 2(3), 135–136.
  14. Elias, J., Bozzo, P., & Einarson, A. (2011). Are probiotics safe for use during pregnancy and lactation?. Canadian family physician Medecin de famille canadien, 57(3), 299–301.
  15. Iavazzo, C., Gkegkes, I. D., Zarkada, I. M., & Falagas, M. E. (2011). Boric acid for recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis: the clinical evidence. Journal of Women's Health, 20(8), 1245-1255. https://doi.org/10.1089/jwh.2010.2708 
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