How to know if something’s wrong with your vagina
Education about vulvas and vaginas is not what it should be. This means all too often, we’re left in the dark about what the hell our bodies are doing. Why does my vulva look like that? Why does my vagina itch? Is it normal to have that much vaginal discharge? Sometimes these questions will have answers so simple it’s heartbreaking. Like: yes, babe, your vulva is perfect just the way it is. Or: cervical mucus is nothing to worry about!
Other experiences related to being a human with a vagina won’t be so easy to answer or to put out of your mind. Sometimes you’ll be experiencing discomfort, such as a sensation of burning or itching around your vulva, or something that concerns and even embarrasses you, such as an unpleasant smell coming from your vagina. So, we’re taking your most commonly asked vagina 101 questions and letting you know when you can chill tf out, and when you might wanna scoot on over to your doc, ASAP.
Why is my vagina itchy?
Most vaginal itching will actually be a result of irritation and not a symptom of anything bigger or badder. Many, many things can irritate your diva-level-sensitive vagina, including (but by no means limited to) soaps, bubble baths, perfumes, moisturisers, tampons filled with chemicals, detergents, fabric softeners, and toilet paper (usually the scented kind). Before you rush off to the doctor or slide down a google rabbit hole (never a positive experience), check the products and materials that have come into contact with your vagina lately. Are there new substances that could have triggered this itchy vagina business? Are your bathroom toiletries and period products filled with toxic chemicals and a cocktail of synthetic materials? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, start eliminating those products until you’re no longer suffering from the burning itching sensations in your pants!
If it’s not caused by external stimuli, your vaginal itching could be a symptom of an infection, STI, or (rarely) vulva cancer - before you get your knickers in a twist over that bomb, see below for discussion of the likelihood of itching being a sign of cancer!
We’ve all heard about thrush. We have all either had thrush or know someone close to us who has. All of this to say: it’s pretty bloody common. Thrush is a very common yeast infection that anyone of any sex and body type can get. Thrush in people with vaginas is characterised by a white, thick discharge with the consistency of cottage cheese but is odourless (note that in people with penises it often comes with a smell) and itching. It can also cause a sore or stinging sensation while peeing or having sex. It’s mostly harmless but does cause discomfort (see: itching) and usually treated with antifungal medication. Tl,dr: nothing to lose sleep over, but not to be ignored, either, as there’s usually a simple fix. Any why suffer unnecessarily?
Similarly, one of the main symptoms of Trichomoniasis, which is an STI caused by a tiny parasite, is vaginal itching. Along with soreness, swelling, and even vaginal odor, yellow or green discharge is a common symptom, as is discharge that becomes significantly thicker or thinner, and even… frothy (sorry) in consistency. Trichomoniasis can also cause pain when peeing or having sex and the vaginal itching, soreness, and swelling can affect the upper thighs as well as the vulva. People with penises can also experience it. See below for more on the smell caused by Trichomoniasis.
Why does my vagina smell?
You’re going to need to be more specific when wondering why your vagina is smelly. Where do you think the smell is coming from? Is it your vaginal discharge that smells bad? Does it occur only at certain times of your cycle or after you’ve worn a particular type of non-breathable underwear that makes your vulva feel sweaty? Or is it persistent and/or irregular?
If it’s your discharge, you need to be mindful that just because there is a smell doesn’t mean it’s a bad smell. Discharge is supposed to have a smell. If your discharge smells musty or slightly sour, that’s normal. If, however, you detect an unpleasant smell in your discharge such as (gird your loins for this next bit) a fishy or rotten smell kind of like gone-off meat, then that is something to worry about. Most of us who have had discharge for years will be able to tell when it smells different, but if you’re experiencing puberty or just recently post-pubescent, it’s totally understandable that you might be worried by the new but perfectly natural, safe smells your body is priducing. Just try to learn the difference so you can a) dismantle that damn shame (it doesn’t serve you!) and b) know when you actually have something to be concerned about.
Okay, so what if it’s not your discharge? Other largely non-alarming reasons for unusual smells wafting up to your unsuspecting nose from down there could be: you’ve recently had sex, recently engaged in high-impact exercise (aka it’s just regular ol’ body sweat), or might have an old tampon in there patiently waiting to be removed (friendly reminder that we really, really want to avoid leaving tampons inside our bodies for longer than the recommended amount of time to avoid TSS!)
The most common cause of unpleasant vaginal odour, however, is Bacterial Vaginosis, AKA BV. BV is characterised by a strong fishy smell that often gets more powerful after sex. A white-ish grey, thin, watery discharge can also be a sign of BV. It’s caused by an upset in your vagina’s natural pH balance. It’s not characterised as an STI, but I feel some type of way about that due to the fact that a women can pass it onto another woman during sex. Which sounds to me like a bacterial infection that can be transmitted sexually. A sexually transmitted infection. But hey, welcome to another day under the cisheteropatriarchy! If you are experiencing a fishy smell, greyish discharge, or even have had sex with someone who has it, it’s worth getting to a sexual health clinic or doctor to get checked out. BV can increase your chances of contracting STIs as it lowers your vagina’s acidity (which acts as a defensive mechanism) so be safe!
As mentioned above, Trichomoniasis is an STI caused by a tiny parasite. It can also lead to vaginal odor. Again, the smell here would be a fishy vaginal odour - similar to that of BV, so it’ll depend on your other symptoms to determine if this is Trichomoniasis or not.
A rectovaginal fistula which can also cause bad vaginal odour. It occurs when there’s an abnormal connection between your rectum and your vagina or ‘hole’ allowing feces or gas to pass through from the base of your large intestine (yeah, where you poop) to your vagina. Symptoms include gas, pus, or stool coming out of your vagina rather than anus, frequent infections, irritation or pain in your perineum, and a ‘foul’ smell coming from your vagina or in your discharge. Not nice, but it can be treated with surgery.
Does my vaginal smell/itch mean cancer?
Whenever we’re googling problems with our bodies - especially the areas we tend to be woefully under-educated in - we’re always secretly asking ‘please tell me I don’t have cancer’, right? I’ve dedicated this bit its own section because it would be misleading to not include vaginal or cervical cancer in the list of reasons why your vagina might be itching or smelling bad, but I also really don’t want to give you the impression that cervical cancer is as common a cause of vaginal odour as a run-of the mill infection or even basic poor hygiene. That being said, let’s dive into the big n scaries, shall we?
Cervical cancer, which is caused by HPV, a common group of viruses that can be transmitted sexually, presents very little symptoms in the early stages - which is why we’re always talking about how bloody important it is for you to go for your regular smear tests. In the later stages it may present with the following symptoms: a watery, bloody, bad-smelling discharge, pain in your pelvis or during sex, and vaginal bleeding in between periods, after sex, or if you’re post-menopausal. When caught early, cervical cancer is very treatable.
Vaginal cancer is very rare and primarily affects women over 40 - the top symptom listed by the NHS is vaginal bleeding post-menopause. Other symptoms include: bleeding and/or pain after sex, a lump in your vagina that doesn’t go away, bloody or smelly discharge, pain when peeing, itchy sensation in your vagina or vulva area, and (in younger, pre-menopausal women) bleeding between periods.
Meanwhile, vulva cancer affects your external genitals - your vulva. It usually affects people with vaginas over the age of 65. It’s rare for younger women who have never gone through menopause to be affected by vulva cancer. Symptoms are persistent itching of the vulva area, pain or soreness, red, white, or dark, raised patches of skin, a wart-like growth, an open sore, a pain when urinating, or a mole that changes shape or colour on your vulva.
Pretty much all of the symptoms listed for the above cancers are also symptoms of much more common, much less severe bacterial or sexually transmitted infections, like the ones outlined above.
How to keep your vagina clean and healthy
It’s super important that we educate ourselves about our bodies so we know how to identify when something’s not quite right and have enough knowledge to be able to identify certain symptoms as being doctor-worthy (golden rule: if in doubt, check it out). But, that being said, there’s really no sense in scaring yourself silly about the C-word or letting vivid, imaginary images of the aforementioned rectovaginal fistula run rampant around your mind, torturing you. Your vagina is an incredibly sensitive soul and it doesn’t take much to upset it. Most problems with vaginal itching and a smelly vagina will likely be something that can be cleared up with treatment and time.
It always helps to know your shit when going to your doctor, so that means accurate descriptions of what you’re experiencing, examples of why this is different to normal, causing discomfort, and/or upsetting your ability to live your day-to-day life as normal. It means having an idea of what ‘normal’ looks like in the first place, so don’t forget to check out our other resources on what normal changes to your discharge look like and how to know if something’s wrong with your period. And don’t forget to do everything you can to take care of your vaginas, ohne babes, because they deserve it.
Image credit Madison Inouye from Pexels