Feminine Odor Problems? What Every Woman Needs to Know

How to tell when odor is a warning sign

Feminine Odor Problems? What Every Woman Needs to Know

Many women claim that douching makes them feel cleaner, eliminates embarrassing odor and protects them against infection. But they may be doing harm to themselves along the way.

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I advise my patients not to douche on a regular basis. The vagina is a self-cleaning organ. When you try to cleanse it yourself by using a douche, you actually flush out the normal, healthy microbes as well as temporarily change the pH (acidic vs. basic nature of the vagina). Rather than providing protection, this sets up an environment that makes it easier for infections to develop.

Additionally, all douche formulations — save for the pure saline varieties — contain ingredients that could trigger an adverse or allergic reaction.

The term, douche, which means “to wash” or “to shower” in French, refers to cleansing the vagina using a solution of water mixed with another fluid — often vinegar, baking soda or some sort of perfume.

The odor dilemma

Women frequently tell me that they douche because they’re concerned about odor. I tell them it’s normal to have some odor. It’s also normal to have the odor change in nature and intensity throughout the menstrual cycle.

Some patients say they notice more odor after making a change in diet, such as eating garlic, tuna or beginning to take dietary supplements. Once they stop consuming the offending food or other products, the odor usually goes away.

Washing the outside area — the vulva — with deodorant soap can decrease the natural odor, but it may also dry out the sensitive tissue, so I advise women to use caution. Most physicians recommend washing only with water, especially if you’re experiencing dryness, itching or burning.

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How to tell when an odor represents a red flag

Some odors may occur due to a health issue. If you smell a persistent and foul odor, or if any odor is accompanied by a thick or greenish discharge, you may have an infection. See your OB/GYN for a firm diagnosis and treatment. Also, definitely visit your doctor if you have pain, rawness or sores in your vaginal area.

These odors and accompanying symptoms can arise due to a serious infection like gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, or chlamydia.

But, most commonly, the cause isn’t an infection at all.

An imbalance of the various kinds of bacteria found in the vagina can cause discomfort and odor as well. This imbalance is known as bacterial vaginosis. If you have this problem, your physician will prescribe an antibiotic, which selectively affects only the anaerobic bacteria (bacteria that live without oxygen) and leaves the healthy bacteria intact.

Yeast vaginitis is what most people refer to as a yeast infection, but really occurs because of a bacterial imbalance that allows the yeast to flourish. Your doctor will prescribe one of several medications to treat the abundance of yeast and put the natural balance back in place.

Rarely, foul odor and discharge is caused by a retained foreign object, such as a tampon, condom or toilet paper.

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If you’re young and haven’t started your periods, yet have an odor, please see a doctor before attempting to treat it with an over-the-counter remedy.

For those past menopause who experience vaginal odor, lack of estrogen could be the cause. See your doctor for an accurate diagnosis and to discuss treatment options.

RELATED: Tired of Tampons? Here Are Pros and Cons of Menstrual Cups

The big takeaway

Your vagina cleans itself, so avoid using a douche, which may actually harm vaginal health. See your OB/GYN annually for your well woman visit and in between visits if you have any pressing concerns.

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Elisa Ross, MD

Elisa Ross, MD, is a obstetrician and gynecologist in Cleveland Clinic’s Women’s Health Institute. She loves caring for and educating women.
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