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While many women associate sudden or unusual vaginal odour with the presence of a yeast infection, yeast infection is far from being the sole cause of embarrassing feminine odours. Nor is vaginal odour necessarily caused by poor hygiene, and in fact, in some cases excessive washing of the vagina only further disrupts the natural pH balance therein and kills off the “good” bacteria that live in the vagina and act as nature’s cleansers. Doing so can actually worsen the smell over time.
There are many things that can cause an odour in women. The vagina is a complex organ that, like the stomach, has a rich environment of well-balanced bacteria, and a disruption in the normal environment of the vagina can cause an overgrowth of these bacteria (particularly the harmful varieties)—so much so that one develops Bacterial vaginosis (BV). Most women will have BV at least once in their lives, regardless of their level of personal cleanliness, and no direct cause is known, though unprotected sex and frequent douching seem to elevate one’s risk.
BV is not the same as a yeast infection, and it’s important to know the dif-ference between the two, because in rare cases BV can become serious (it’s therefore advised to see your doctor and begin antibiotic treatment if you believe you have BV), whereas today yeast infections are easily treated with over-the-counter medication. A yeast infection happens when there is an overabundance of yeast in the vagina, usually caused by a change in vaginal pH (specifically, a lessening of the vagina’s natural acidity). While both produce an unpleasant odour, yeast infections present with a thick white discharge, while BV does not.
Sometimes, changes in vaginal odour are a normal part of a woman’s monthly cycle; the pH balance of the vagina fluctuates over the course of the month, and is the least acidic on the days just prior to and during menstruation, which may allow a temporary overgrowth of bacteria.
Some STDs may also cause an increase in unpleasant vaginal odour. Chlamydia, Gonorrhoea, and pelvic inflammatory disease (a condition wherein sexually transmitted bacteria spread from the vagina to the uterus and into upper genital tract) have all been proven to cause vaginal odour. In rarer cases, vaginal or cervical cancer may also cause feminine odours, so if you are free of STDs and conventional treatments for BV and yeast infections are failing to resolve your symptoms, it’s wise ask your doctor to check for more serious issues.