Cervical cancer remains one of the most common types of cancer in women worldwide.
Detecting this type of cancer at an early stage can significantly improve the chances of successful treatment.
Unfortunately, cervical cancer often does not present with distinct symptoms in its early stages. When symptoms do become noticeable, they are often misinterpreted or overlooked.
One of these symptoms is abnormal vaginal discharge, which can vary in color, consistency, volume, and odor.
However, not all abnormal discharges are indicative of cervical cancer, as they can be caused by several other conditions such as bacterial infections, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), or hormonal imbalances.
Hence, understanding the characteristics of cervical cancer discharge, particularly its odor, can be of immense help.
What is Abnormal Vaginal Odor?
Every vagina naturally has its own unique smell. This smell can tell a lot about your health and what you’ve been doing.
For example, you might notice your vagina smells different during different parts of your menstrual cycle, or after you’ve been exercising or had sex. All of these changes are perfectly normal.
However, if your vagina starts to smell very strong and the smell is bad or fishy, this isn’t normal, especially if it goes on for several days.
If your vagina also has a discharge that is grayish-white, and if it feels like it’s burning or itchy, these could be signs that something’s not right health-wise.
What Causes Vaginal Odor?
The smell of your vagina can change based on how much acid (or pH level) it has.
Your vagina is home to many bacteria, forming what we call your vaginal flora. These bacteria help keep the pH level of your vagina balanced.
When the balance is just right, it stops infections that can make your vagina smell bad. But if the balance is off, your vagina might smell fishy or just not pleasant.
Different smells from your vagina can be normal and not something to worry about. For example:
- If your vagina smells a bit sour or tangy, it could mean that the pH level in your vagina is a little more acidic than usual. This smell is related to good bacteria in your vagina called lactobacilli. Some people think it smells like sourdough bread.
- If your vagina smells a bit sweet or like molasses or gingerbread, it could also be a sign that your pH levels have changed.
- When you have your period, your vaginal discharge might smell a bit like metal because period blood contains iron.
- If your vagina smells like ammonia, it could mean that there’s some pee on your genitals, or that you’re not drinking enough water.
- If your vagina smells like a skunk or body odor, it could mean that you’re stressed and your sweat glands are working hard.
These smells usually go away on their own. They can change with your hormones or even with what you eat. For instance, eating foods with a strong smell like garlic or fish can change the smell of your vagina.
But if your vagina has a bad smell that doesn’t go away, it could mean there’s a medical problem.
Bad smells from your vagina can be caused by an imbalance in your vaginal bacteria, which can lead to infection and inflammation (or vaginitis).
Some of the most common causes of bad vaginal smells include:
- Bacterial vaginosis (BV): This is an infection caused by an imbalance in your vagina’s flora. It’s often the reason for a fishy smell, especially after sex. You might also notice a gray or grayish-white discharge.
- Trichomoniasis: This is a sexually transmitted infection caused by a parasite. It can cause a fishy or musty smell, and a greenish-yellow discharge.
In rare cases, bad vaginal smells can be a sign of:
- Rectovaginal fistula: This is a rare condition where there’s an opening between your rectum and vagina, letting poop leak into your vagina and causing a bad-smelling discharge.
- Vaginal or cervical cancer: These can cause a heavy, bad-smelling discharge.
Finally, if you forget to take out a tampon, it could eventually cause a smell like rotten meat. The smell will go away once you or a doctor removes the tampon.
What is Cervical Cancer Discharge Like?
Its characteristics can vary greatly among individuals. However, it is often heavy, watery, and may be mixed with blood (even outside of menstruation).
This discharge can range from clear to pale, or from pink to brown. It can also have a foul odor.
The Odor of Cervical Cancer Discharge
The most distinctive characteristic of cervical cancer discharge is its strong, unpleasant smell. This foul odor is often described as “fishy” or similar to the smell of rotting meat.
However, it is crucial to note that a foul-smelling discharge can also be a sign of other medical conditions, such as bacterial vaginosis, trichomoniasis, or a forgotten tampon.
While it’s impossible to describe an exact smell that can be universally recognized as indicative of cervical cancer, any persistent, abnormal, foul-smelling discharge should be discussed with a healthcare provider.
How is Vaginal Odor Diagnosed?
If you notice increased discharge with a foul odor that does not resolve even after regular hygiene measures, if you have a strange smell from your vagina, a doctor or nurse can help figure out why.
While occasional changes in vaginal discharge can be normal, particularly due to hormonal fluctuations in the menstrual cycle, any persistent change is a cause for concern.
The most usual reason for a bad smell is having too much of a certain type of bacteria, called Gardnerella vaginalis, which causes a fishy smell.
Here’s what the doctor or nurse might do to find out what’s going on:
- They’ll ask you about your symptoms and any past health problems.
- They might look at your vagina to see if anything seems unusual.
- They’ll take a small sample of your vaginal discharge to look at it more closely.
- They might check the pH (or acidity) of your vagina.
How can Vaginal Odor be Prevented?
Here are some simple things you can do to keep your vagina clean and stop bad smells:
- Keep clean: Shower often, and use gentle, fragrance-free soap and warm water to clean the outside part of your vagina (the vulva). After you exercise or swim, change out of your sweaty clothes or wet swimsuit quickly. Bacteria love to grow in warm and wet places.
- Don’t douche: Douching can mess up the acidity of your vagina and make it easier for you to get an infection. If you already have an infection, douching can push the bacteria further into your body and lead to a serious infection that can cause problems getting pregnant.
- Wear comfy clothes: Tight clothes, like thongs, can trap heat and moisture around your vulva. Instead, wear underwear made of cotton, which lets your skin breathe.
- Drink lots of water: If you don’t drink enough water, your vagina might start to smell like ammonia. Water helps dilute the waste in your pee, which can smell really bad when it’s concentrated.
- Be careful during sex: Using condoms can lower your risk of getting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and other infections, like BV, which can mess with the acidity of your vagina. If you use lube, pick one that’s unscented and unflavored to avoid irritating your vagina.
How is Vaginal Odor Treated?
Sometimes, a strange smell from your vagina can go away on its own without any treatment.
But if the smell doesn’t get better, a doctor or nurse can give you antibiotics to treat the problem and stop the smell.
These antibiotics can come as a pill or cream.
Here are some common antibiotics used to treat infections that cause bad vaginal smells:
- Clindamycin (also known as Cleocin).
- Metronidazole (also known as Flagyl).
- Tinidazole (also known as Tindamax).
You should reach out to your healthcare provider before taking any medication.
While foul-smelling discharge can be one of the signs of cervical cancer, it is not definitive proof of this disease.
However, any persistent change in the characteristics of vaginal discharge, particularly if accompanied by other symptoms, should be evaluated by a healthcare professional.
Regular cervical cancer screening and vaccination against HPV remain the best strategies to prevent this disease.
Take Care of Yourself!