Fishy Vaginal Odor: Causes, Treatments and When to See a Doctor

Fishy Vaginal Odor: Causes, Treatments and When to See a Doctor
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For many women, having a fishy vaginal odor can be a very distressing and embarrassing condition. Usually, vaginal discharge doesn’t have a distinct smell; so, a strong fishy odor from vaginal discharge usually indicates that there is a health issue to address. Most of the time, a fishy vaginal smell is an indicator of an infection in the genitals. However, poor hygiene, excessive sweating, or even certain foods can cause a vagina to have a fishy smell.

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Thankfully, there are many home remedies that can help to treat a fishy vaginal odor. For example, probiotics can help to improve the health of your vagina and help to restore healthy bacteria. Also, apple cider vinegar, tea tree oil, and coconut oil all help to kill off germs that cause a fishy vaginal smell and get rid of the other symptoms like itching and irritation.

If you have noticed that your underwear has a distinct fishy odor or if you have noticed that your vagina smells bad, this article will help you find how to treat the malodor. Finding the root cause of feminine odor can also help prevent vaginal discharge smelling like fish again.

Symptoms of Fishy Vaginal Odor

Sometimes the only symptoms that anything is wrong with your vagina is a fishy smell that you detect when you move or remove your pad or underwear. If that is your only symptom, then it could be that better feminine hygiene can remedy the problem.

If the fishy vaginal odor is caused by an infection, then you will likely notice other symptoms. Other symptoms of a vaginal infection include discharge that looks yellowish or gray and has a strong foul odor. Also, you may experience some itching around the labia and notice redness, irritation and possible swelling at the opening of your vagina.

A vaginal infection may also cause a distinct strong vaginal odor after your period or you may notice a fishy smell after having intercourse.

Normal vaginal odor

It is good to remember that vaginal discharge is a normal part of a healthy reproductive system and helps keep your vagina free of bacteria. Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that normal vaginal discharge will have a slight odor.1 Vaginal discharge is usually clear or milky white and sometimes you may even have slightly pink or brown discharge if you are expecting your period.

However, the Mayo Clinic doctors say that if your vagina smells like fish, it usually means that there is a problem that needs addressing.

Causes of Fishy Vaginal Odor

Let’s look at what can be the reason for fishy-smelling discharge and what you can do to get rid of the vaginal odor.

Bacterial vaginosis (BV)

One of the most common reasons for your vagina smelling like fish is a bacterial infection called bacterial vaginosis. According to the Cleveland Clinic, up to a third of women in the U.S. experience BV at some point in their life.

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Doctors from the Cleveland Clinic say that the common symptoms of BV include gray-colored vaginal discharge that smells fishy. Bacterial vaginosis is also a reason for fishy-smelling discharge after sexual intercourse.2

Although bacterial vaginosis doesn’t cause serious health problems, it’s important to treat BV so that it doesn’t recur. Doctors from the National Health Service say that very often BV can come back in the first 3 months after treatment.3

At the end of this article, you will find some helpful home remedies to get rid of a fishy odor caused by bacterial vaginosis. If you want to find more information on BV, please read my article on how to treat bacterial vaginosis naturally.

Yeast infection

Another reason for discharge that has a distinct smell is a yeast infection. Yeast infections are caused when a dis-balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria allow yeast or fungi to overgrow. The most common symptom of a vaginal yeast infection is clumpy white vaginal discharge.

Does a yeast infection cause fishy vaginal odor? Usually not. Dr. Amanda Oakley, a dermatologist from New Zealand, says that yeast infections usually cause a yeasty-smelling discharge that doesn’t smell fishy.4

In fact, Dr. Traci Johnson on WebMD says if there’s a fishy smell, bacterial vaginosis is a better guess. If your discharge looks like cottage cheese, then a yeast infection may be to blame. That’s also more likely to cause itching and burning, though bacterial vaginosis might make you itchy too.5

Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis (sometimes just called “trich”) is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that can cause vaginal malodor that smells of fish. Trichomoniasis can affect men and women alike and if a woman has “trich” then it is usually the vagina where the infection occurs.

One of the most obvious symptoms of trichomoniasis is a thick, yellowish or gray discharge that has a strong fish odor to it. Researchers from the Illinois Department of Public Health say that other symptoms of trichomoniasis are pain during urination and mild to severe itching around the genitals. Sometimes, trichomoniasis may cause abdominal pain and cramping.

Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)

One reason why your vagina might smell fishy is if you have pelvic inflammatory disease. This is an inflammatory disease caused by bacteria in your vagina that can also affect your other reproductive organs. Bacterial vaginosis can also increase your risk of getting PID.

According to Dr. David Soper from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Medical University of South Carolina, PID causes irregular vaginal bleeding and discharge that has a bad odor. Pelvic inflammatory disease is often the cause of noticing a strong vaginal odor after your period.

Other symptoms of PID include cramping pain in the lower abdomen without period, nausea, vomiting, and a fever. If the pelvic inflammatory disease gets worse, Dr. Soper says that you may also notice a yellow-green vaginal discharge.

Poor hygiene

Your vagina might smell like fish if you have poor hygiene habits. Poor vaginal hygiene can lead to a buildup of bacteria in the vagina that can start to develop a fishy smell.

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Dr. Amanda Oakley on DermNetNZ says that vaginal malodor can be the result of poor hygiene.4

Some ways of getting rid of fishy vaginal odor naturally and improve vaginal hygiene are to always wipe from front to back, avoid douching, and change pads and tampons regularly during menstruation.

Forgotten tampon

Fishy smelling vaginal discharge can happen if you leave a tampon in your vagina for too long or if it gets forgotten. A buildup of bacteria in your vagina can cause fish-smelling discharge that looks bad.

According to the book Clinical Methods, if you have malodorous vaginal discharge, you should look for a forgotten tampon if you use them during your period.7

Doctors from the National Health Service say that a tampon that has been left in the vagina too long can also cause toxic shock syndrome. They recommend the following to prevent complications when using tampons:8

  • Wash your hands before and after inserting a tampon
  • Use a tampon that has the lowest absorbency for your menstrual flow
  • Change tampons regularly as instructed on the packaging
  • If using a tampon at night, insert a new one before going to bed and change it in the morning

Sweat

Sometimes, a combination of sweat, normal vaginal discharge, and urine can combine to create a strong-smelling feminine odor. Usually, having good feminine hygiene habits and changing your underwear regularly can help to reduce any fishy odor from your vagina.

Certain foods

If you only notice a strong fishy odor from your vagina once in a while, it could be because of certain foods that you have been eating. For example, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic say that asparagus and B6 supplements can give urine a strong odor. This can become even more concentrated if you are not drinking enough water. Other foods that cause your urine to smell include garlic, salmon and coriander.

Best Home Remedies to Treat Fishy Odor from the Vagina

If you want to get rid of an unpleasant smell from your vagina and stop smelling like fish, there are many helpful home remedies for fishy odors.

Probiotics

Taking probiotics is a great way to improve your vaginal health and get rid of a fishy smell from your vagina.

Probiotics help to increase the number of “good” bacteria in your body and can prevent bacterial vaginosis, candidiasis (yeast infection), and other infections.

The journal Clinical Microbiology and Infection reported that probiotics have been proven to help treat bacterial vaginosis infections. Probiotics also have a marked effect on recurrence of BV and it was found that women had fewer instances of BV recurring.10

However, probiotics don’t just help against fishy vaginal odor caused by bacterial vaginosis. According to the journal Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Infectious Diseases, probiotics can improve the vagina’s microbiota in general. The researchers concluded that probiotics can boost the general health of many women.11

For information on how to use probiotics for improving your vaginal health, please read my article on the many reasons to take probiotic supplements.

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Tea tree oil

Tea tree oil is a natural home remedy that can help to get rid of fishy smells from your vagina. Tea tree oil contains naturally occurring antibacterial properties that kill bacteria and germs that cause a strong odor with discolored discharge.

The journal Clinical Microbiology Reviews reports that tea tree oil has many antimicrobial and medicinal properties. Studies into tea tree oil have found that it can kill off many strains of bacteria and prevent inflammatory conditions.12

Interestingly, the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy reported on a case where a woman with BV successfully treated her symptoms, including fishy vaginal odor, with just tea tree oil preparations.13

How to use tea tree oil for fishy vaginal odor:

To help treat fishy vaginal discharge using tea tree oil, you can make a natural vaginal rinse to help kill off any vaginal infections that are causing fishy vaginal odor:

  1. Dilute a few drops of tea tree oil in a tablespoon of carrier oil and add to a bowl of warm water.
  2. Rinse your vagina daily with the tea tree oil remedy to help get rid of the fishy smell.
  3. Continue using until you no longer have fishy odor discharge.

Tea tree oil can also be used in conjunction with coconut oil for smelly vaginal discharge.

Coconut oil

Coconut oil is another natural treatment you can use at home to treat the symptoms of fishy discharge. Coconut oil has antibacterial properties and fatty acids that help to reduce inflammation and kill off infections in the vagina.

For example, the Journal of Medicinal Food reported that coconut oil is effective against many bacterial strains.14 In fact, some studies have pointed to the fact that coconut oil is just as effective as some antibacterial drugs that are used to treat bacterial vaginosis.15

How to use coconut oil for fishy smelling discharge:

You can make a coconut oil vaginal suppository with tea tree oil to help treat many conditions that cause thick, smelly discharge. This is what you should do:

  1. Warm a tablespoon of virgin coconut oil to melt the oil and add 3 drops of tea tree oil.
  2. Soak a tampon in the coconut oil remedy and insert into your vagina.
  3. Leave for 2 hours to allow the antibacterial properties of the coconut oil suppository kill off any germs and get rid of strong odors.
  4. Apply the remedy daily until signs of your odor-causing vaginal infection have gone completely.

The beneficial properties of virgin coconut oil can also help to treat symptoms of a yeast infection naturally.

Apple cider vinegar

If your vagina has a fishy smell, then you can use raw unprocessed apple cider vinegar (ACV) as a natural remedy to get rid of a feminine odor. Apple cider vinegar contains natural antiseptic properties that destroy germs that are often the cause of fish-smelling genital odor.

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According to studies in 2014, apple cider vinegar contains medicinal properties that have the capability of killing off bacterial microorganisms and helping to boost “healthy” bacteria.16 Apple cider vinegar also lowers your vagina’s pH levels, which are often elevated when you have a fishy vaginal odor.

How to use apple cider vinegar for fishy odor:

There are a number of ways that you can use apple cider vinegar to remove odor from vaginal discharge.

To make a bath with ACV to treat malodorous discharge and itching, this is what you should do:

  1. Run a warm bath and add 2 cups of raw apple cider vinegar and a few drops of tea tree oil diluted in a tablespoon of carrier oil.
  2. Swish the bath water to mix the ACV and tea tree oil solution.
  3. Soak for 20 minutes to help kill off germs that are causing fishy discharge.
  4. Bathe daily until all signs of the vaginal infection are gone and you no longer are bothered by a fishy smell.

You can also treat fish-smelling vaginal discharge by soaking a tampon in diluted apple cider vinegar. This is how to make an antibacterial vaginal suppository with apple cider vinegar:

  1. Mix equal parts of raw apple cider vinegar with warm water.
  2. Soak a tampon in the ACV remedy and insert into your vagina.
  3. Leave for 30 minutes to help destroy the infection-causing microbes and get rid of the fishy vaginal discharge.
  4. Repeat 1-2 times a day until you no longer have any unpleasant fishy smells from your vagina.

The beneficial properties of raw unfiltered ACV can also help to treat symptoms of a yeast infection naturally.

Yogurt

If your vagina smells like fish and is itchy, then applying cooling raw yogurt to your vagina can give you needed relief. Raw natural yogurt contains probiotics that can boost your vaginal health, and the cooling effect of yogurt soothes away any irritation.

The effectiveness of yogurt in treating conditions that cause vaginal discharge to smell of fish was reported on in a study in 2012. Researchers found that yogurt containing probiotics was just as effective as popular antibiotics that are used to treat BV. The study concluded that probiotic yogurt is an effective treatment for bacterial vaginosis.17

How to use yogurt for fishy vaginal smell:

It is very easy to use yogurt to address health issues that cause fishy vaginal smell. This is what you should do:

  1. Thoroughly soak a tampon in plain probiotic yogurt.
  2. Insert the tampon into your vagina and leave for 2 hours to help treat the causes of fishy vaginal odor.
  3. Use twice a day and continue applying until you no longer have a fishy odor from your discharge.

The beneficial properties of yogurt can also help to treat symptoms of a yeast infection naturally.

How to Prevent Fishy Vaginal Odor

Of course, it is always easier to prevent fishy vaginal odor rather than treating it. This will help save you from embarrassment if your vagina emits a fishy smell.

Dr. Amanda Oakely from DermNetNZ says that the best ways to prevent fishy malodor from your vagina are:4

  • Avoid wearing tight-fitting underwear
  • Change your underwear frequently
  • Use a non-soap cleanser daily to keep your vagina clean
  • Use incontinence pads if you suffer from any problems with your urinary system

Fishy Vaginal Smell – When to See a Doctor

If you have vaginal discharge that smells of fish or has another offensive odor, you should speak to your doctor. Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that if you are concerned about an abnormal or persistent vaginal odor, you should see your doctor, especially if you have other signs and symptoms such as itching, burning, irritation or abnormal discharge.18

Read my other related articles:

Article Sources:

  1. MayoClinic. Vaginal odor.
  2. ClevelandClinic. Bacterial vaginosis.
  3. NHS. Bacterial vaginosis.
  4. DermNetNZ. Vaginal or genital malodour in women.
  5. WebMD. Vaginal infections and vaginitis.
  6. MerckManuals. Pelvic inflammatory disease.
  7. NCBI. Clinical methods.
  8. NHS. Toxic shock syndrome.
  9. ClevelandClinic. Changes in urine.
  10. Clin Microbiol Infect.2007 Jul;13(7):657-64.
  11. Interdiscip Perspect Infect Dis. 2008; 2008: 256490.
  12. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2006 Jan; 19(1): 50–62.
  13. Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 1999 Jan; 43(1): 196.
  14. J Med Food.2013 Dec;16(12):1079-85.
  15. J Int Soc Prev Community Dent. 2016 Sep-Oct; 6(5): 447–452.
  16. mBio. 2014 Mar-Apr; 5(2): e00013-14.
  17. J Matern Fetal Neonatal Med.2012 Jul;25(7):1021-4.
  18. MayoClinic. Vaginal odor.
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