Here’s when it could be a sign that something isn’t right.

By Samantha Lauriello
June 07, 2019

One of the many unwanted gifts that Aunt Flo brings with her every month is a funky odor that lingers downstairs. You might not always smell it, but when you do get a whiff, it’s less than pleasant. Way less. 

Periods smell. That’s no secret, but you might be wondering why. When you get a cut on your finger, for example, the blood doesn’t have any smell at all. So why does that time of the month bring a particularly unpleasant odor? 

Christine Greves, MD, an ob-gyn at the Center for Obstetrics and Gynecology at Orlando Health in Florida, tells Health that our vaginas are home to many different bacteria, and when that bacteria mixes with blood, it produces an odor. Simple as that. 

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“When you cut your finger, you wipe the blood off right away, and it’s fresh blood, meaning it hasn’t been sitting around for awhile,” Dr. Greves says. “But period blood stays in the vagina for a longer period of time. It’s exposed to the bacteria in the vagina, and that’s where you get that odor.” 

You might also notice that it doesn’t always smell the same. The amount of bacteria in the vagina fluctuates, which can change the smell. A slight change is usually nothing to worry about, Dr. Greves says, but if all of a sudden your period smells seriously rotten, you may want to talk to your doctor.

A particularly strong, fishy smell could be a sign of bacterial vaginosis, an infection caused by an overgrowth of bacteria in the vagina. Other symptoms include burning (especially during urination), itchiness, and abnormal vaginal discharge. Any of these symptoms should be a cue to get a professional opinion. 

A rotten smell, on the other hand, could be a sign that you’ve left a tampon in for too long, Dr. Greves says. Can’t remember whether you took your tampon out? Feel around the opening of your vagina for a string or feel inside for the tampon itself. If you’re still not sure, go see your doctor. 

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If you don’t have an infection but just want to keep your normal period smell to a minimum, Dr. Greves says changing your tampon or pad frequently is key. How often you need to change to avoid any odor will depend on your flow, but you can experiment to see what works for you. 

Proper hygiene should be enough to make the smell manageable. But whatever you do, do not use a douche or deodorizing products, such as wipes and sprays. These throw off the natural bacteria in your vagina and cause infection. 

Change tampons or pads regularly, wear clean and breathable underwear, and be mindful of possible infections. A little smell is nothing to be ashamed of, and remember, you’re probably the only one who notices it, anyway. 

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