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Coping with Smelly Vaginal Discharge

Written by Elizabeth Buescher, Gynecologist

Some vaginal discharge is normal and when it is normal, it usually means the woman has clear, whitish or yellowish discharge that has no odor and that does not significantly stain their underwear. When the discharge becomes smelly, it can indicate that there is an infection going on that can cause other vaginal symptoms like burning on urination, itching, vaginal pain on intercourse or burning vaginal pain. Smelly discharge is not a normal vaginal phenomenon when it comes to otherwise healthy women.

It means that it is time to see the doctor, especially if she has other symptoms that are bothering her. When she develops smelly discharge, it is a good time to note the color and consistency of the discharge as this can be a clue as to the cause of the smelly discharge.
There are several different kinds of malodorous discharge that differ in color and characteristics. Many of these represent female organ infections that need antibiotics or antifungal treatment. Here are some examples:


  • Bacterial Vaginosis. This is an imbalance of the type and number of organisms residing in the cervix or in the vagina and can be transmitted from one person to another through sexual activity. When you have bacterial vaginosis, there can be an increase in gray or brown smelly discharge from baseline levels and you may experience burning on urination and vaginal burning pain. You may notice a fishy odor to the discharge—it ceases to become odorless. Besides being embarrassing, this kind of smelly discharge can lead to an increase in small for gestational age babies and premature labor in women who develop it during pregnancy.


  • Trichomoniasis in pregnancy. This is a type of sexually transmitted disease that can change the character of the discharge you notice. Rather than being white in color, the discharge can become thicker and more copious. The discharge is white smelly discharge, yellow smelly discharge or even green smelly discharge. When you have a Trichomonas infection in pregnancy, you are infected with a parasite that can change the character of the vaginal discharge and can contribute to burning pain with intercourse and an increase in risk of developing preterm labor. The infection can spread up inside the uterus to infect the amniotic fluid that surrounds your baby in the womb. This can lead to the preterm contractions that can cause a premature birth. In general, the discharge will be frothy and greener with Trichomoniasis and can be very malodorous. If you experience this type of vaginal discharge regardless of whether or not you are pregnant, seek the advice of your doctor. If Trichomonas is identified, you can be placed on antibiotic therapy, such as metronidazole.
  • Cervical polyps. Cervical polyps are benign, red and smooth appendages that stick out of the cervical passageway. When they are not irritated, these polyps have no symptoms. They can, however, develop inflammation or infection, leading to a change in the coloration and odor of the vaginal discharge. They can also cause bleeding on intercourse if they are big enough or if they are traumatized during sex. This can turn the discharge from whitish yellow to a yellow or pink smelly vaginal discharge, which comes from normal vaginal discharge mixed with old, dried blood. It can smell like iron from the loss of small amounts of blood when the polyps are traumatized.


  • Candidiasis. This is a yeast infection involving the vaginal canal. Hormonal changes occurring during pregnancy or because of immunosuppression or diabetes can contribute to getting more yeast infections. Fortunately, these types of infections can be easily treated by taking an anti-yeast vaginal cream. While these are available over the counter, you should talk to or see your doctor if you develop cottage cheese-like, smelly white vaginal discharge that itches a great deal. It smells a lot like the smell of rising or baking bread. Your doctor can prescribe or recommend an appropriate anti-yeast formulation, such as Monistat suppositories or Diflucan, which is an oral medication for stubborn yeast infections that don’t respond well to topical medications.
  • Chlamydia. Chlamydia is a sexually transmitted disease that can lead to a thick, gray or white smelly vaginal discharge or to a sticky and smelly vaginal discharge during pregnancy. The thick discharge can be irritating to the vaginal tissues and can lead to miscarriage or labor complications in a pregnant woman if not treated appropriately before labor and deliver occurs. Chlamydia can result in eye infections in the newborn and should, therefore, be treated before it comes time to have the baby. There are medications, such as azithromycin, which is an antibiotic safe for use in and outside of pregnancy, which can help resolve the infection before it causes fetal injury. Medications normally used to treat Chlamydia, such as doxycycline and levofloxacin, are used less often during the treatment of Chlamydia in pregnancy because they can cause problems with the fetus but they can be used for smelly vaginal discharge in non-pregnant women. If the symptoms persist after treatment or are in high-risk women, the screening test for Chlamydia should be repeated three months after the treatment. This is because the woman can become reinfected, especially if she has more than one sexual partner, a sexual partner who has other partners or a sexual partner who chose not to be treated. In some cases, there is an increase in smelly discharge during ovulation when secretions reach a peak during the cycle.


  • Group B Strep. A streptococcal infection is an infection of the vagina that can be dangerous to the fetus at the time of birth. For this reason, regardless of the type of smelly discharge you have in pregnancy, a culture for Group B Strep will be taken at 35-37 weeks gestation to see if you are infected. Antibiotics are given during labor and delivery to reduce the chances of passing on the infection to your newborn child. Often the infection has no symptoms although an increase in thick white vaginal discharge from the vagina during pregnancy could mean that you have a Group B Strep infection that needs treatment. Your doctor will be able to tell you for sure what is going on with the discharge from the vagina you are experiencing and can tell if it is serious or not.

    Smelly Discharge after Period



    Many women feel unclean after they have their period and this can be exacerbated when they are suffering from a smelly vaginal discharge after their period. There are ways to get rid of this type of discharge or to prevent it from occurring altogether. Some of these include the following:



  • Wear loose fitting underwear, preferably made from cotton. Cotton breathes better than polyester underwear and is not irritating to your skin. When the vaginal area can breathe, there is less leakage of secretions. Clean yourself carefully after sex before putting on a pair of breathable underwear. It’s not very sexy but it gets rid of smelly discharge after sex.


  • Don’t spend too much time lying around in a wet bathing suit as this can create an environment ripe for vaginal infection. Instead, after swimming, dry off the vaginal area and put on a nice, clean pair of dry cotton underwear that will keep the discharge to a minimum and reduce your chances of having an infection involving smelly discharge after intercourse or swimming.


  • Keep the vaginal area dry and clean as much as possible. This means using vaginal wipes when toileting or at least wiping the vaginal area as much as possible without irritating it. This can decrease the amount of discharge on the outside of the vagina and can eliminate the chafing that can come from a damp vulvar area.


  • Do not engage in douching. This can change the vaginal pH and can actually make you have more discharge rather than less. Douches that contain fragrances are the worst choices of all as you can become irritated by the fragrance, allowing more vaginal discharge to occur. You can have smelly discharge after hysterectomy, top, and this can irritate your vulvar area.
  • Eat a diet high in yogurt. Yogurt can help prevent yeast infections by colonizing the rectovaginal area with healthy bacteria. This restores a proper balance between good bacteria, bad bacteria, and fungal species in the vagina so that the discharge associated with bacterial vaginosis and candida is less likely to occur. Yogurt contains probiotic bacteria that live off of us just as much as we live off of them. This symbiotic relationship keeps bad bacteria from colonizing the lower gut and the vaginal area. Eat yogurt so you can avoid smelly discharge after birth.


  • Decrease the amount of stress in your life. The less stress you have and the more you do so by practicing meditation or yoga, the less your chances of getting infections leading to smelly vaginal discharge from the vagina. Your immune system is better when you practice yoga or meditation techniques.


  • Keep the sugar level down in your diet, particularly if you have gestational diabetes or type 2 diabetes. High sugar levels contribute to getting yeast infections, which will create a cottage cheese-like discharge that itches and burns on urination or with sex. Blood sugars should stay less than 140 mg/dL at all times. This can be accomplished by not adding sugar to recipes and by avoiding high sugar, processed foods. If you keep the sugar levels down, you can have no discharge or even just a clear discharge that has no odor.


  • Use a condom when having sex to avoid transmission of sexually transmitted diseases like Chlamydia, Trichomonas or bacterial vaginosis. This is especially true if you have a new sexual partner or have a partner who has multiple other sexual partners. If you, yourself, have multiple sexual partners, you should refrain from unprotected sex as well. Condoms can protect you from getting sexually transmitted diseases, for the most part. Condoms are necessary even if you are pregnant because they can prevent infections causing smelly discharge before your period or smelly discharge in early pregnancy.
  • Sleep without underwear at all. This allows the vulvar area to air out completely during sleep so that you can reduce your chances of getting an irritated vulvar area from an increase in smelly vaginal discharge, particularly during ovulation.


  • Wipe from front to back when finished voiding. The bacteria that can colonize the vagina often come from the anal area and when you wipe from front to back, you wipe the bacteria away from the vaginal and urethral area. This reduces not only vaginal infections but bladder infections as well as smelly vaginal discharge.


  • Stay well hydrated and void often. This allows you to flush out the bladder and can increase your ability to fight off vaginal and bladder infections. This means drinking at least 64 ounces of water per day. While pregnant, you can substitute some of the water with milk but most of your intake should still be in the form of clean, pure water.


Have questions about smelly discharge?


Speak to your doctor if you have questions like “how to get rid of smelly discharge” or “what causes smelly discharge?” Questions like “why do I have smelly discharge?” can be answered with a simple examination with or without culture of the vagina. Your doctor can help you find out what causes smelly discharge in your situation; in most cases, the reason for smelly discharge will be easy to determine and a treatment can be started that will get rid of your smelly vaginal discharge in no time.
Remember that, while vaginal discharge is normal, smelly vaginal discharge is not normal and usually involves a treatable condition that requires good vaginal hygiene, antibiotic therapy or antifungal therapy. If you are treated for smelly vaginal discharge and the symptoms recur again, it could mean that the original infection wasn’t ever cleared or, more likely, that you have a reinfection as a cause of your smelly vaginal discharge. It may be a reinfection with the same type of organism or another organism altogether, further pointing to the recommendation that you see your doctor with any kind of smelly vaginal discharge that you develop.