- Sweat, changes in vaginal bacteria, and perimenopause can change the smell of your menstrual blood.
- A new, unpleasant smell can also indicate an infection or, in some rare cases, cervical cancer.
- If practicing good hygiene and changing period products early doesn’t help, call your doctor.
Without a doubt, your menstrual cycle can cause some very unusual smells.
“Period blood includes vaginal mucus and endometrial cells. Combining these with blood can give off a distinctive odor,” she says. Dr. Yana Markidangynecologist in a private practice.
But your blood should usually smell similar from month to month, whether it smells more metallic, or sweet, or something else. If you notice a new odor during your menstrual cycle, this could indicate that something is wrong, especially since vaginal odors can be a sign of infection.
Here are the seven most common reasons why your period smells stronger than usual and what to do next.
1. Natural vaginal bacteria mixed with blood
While every body is different, healthy period blood often smells metallic or sweet because of the iron and copper content in your blood mixed with vaginal bacteria.
If the mix of bacteria in your vagina (also known as the vaginal microbiome) changes, your period blood can take on a different scent.
Common culprits that can disrupt your vaginal microbiome include:
- Hormonal changes due to pregnancy or menopause
- Sexually transmitted infections
How to deal with it: Good vaginal and vulvar hygiene will help keep your vaginal microbiome healthy and help reduce strong odors during your period.
If you already notice a strong odor, try some of the following tips for good vaginal hygiene (and if that doesn’t help, consult a doctor):
- Wash your vulva with warm water daily and after sex — just remember, you don’t need to wash your vagina.
- Wear breathable cotton underwear.
- Wash new underwear before wearing.
- Avoid washing and scratching anywhere down there.
2. Bacterial Vaginitis (BV)
During your period, or period, you lose “good” bacteria called lactobacilli, says Markiden. This puts you more at risk for infections such as bacterial vaginosis (BV).
Markiden says that bacterial vaginosis is the most common medical cause of vaginal odor. If you have it, you’ll probably notice a fishy smell down there, which can mix with blood during your period to cause a particularly strong smell.
Other symptoms of BV include:
- Burning, especially when urinating or during sex
- Green, gray or white discharge
- Intense itching
How to deal with it: If you think you have BV, you will need to seek medical help. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to clear up the bacterial infection.
Your doctor may also suggest taking over-the-counter probiotics after the infection clears to keep your microbiome balanced and reduce your chances of developing BV again.
3. Menstrual product left in or for too long
If you’ve left your tampon, pad or menstrual cup in for too long, you may notice an overwhelming smell of blood.
How often should you change your period products? Well, this may depend on the products you prefer:
How to deal with it: Changing menstrual products early can reduce unpleasant odors and reduce the risk of urinary tract infections, STDs, and toxic shock syndrome.
4. Excessive sweat
More sweating than usual is a common symptom of menstruation. And if you sweat between your legs during your period, it can leave your vaginal area smelling like a dirty gym bag.
Sweat glands in the genital area can enhance the smell of your vaginal microbiome and the natural scent of your skin. The combined salt, fat and bacteria from perspiration, when mixed with menstrual blood, can create a strong, smelly mixture.
How to deal with it: If sweat is to blame, then gently washing your vulva with warm water and mild soap should get rid of the smell.
“During your menstrual cycle, you should use a gentle, unscented cleanser. Soap can dry out the skin and alter the delicate pH of the vulva, predisposing you to infection,” says Markidan.
5. Sexually Transmitted Infections (STDs)
If you notice a foul pus-like odor accompanied by an unusual discharge, you could have an STD such as trichomoniasis, chlamydia, or gonorrhea.
That said, with an STD, the smell will stick around after your period ends.
Other symptoms of chlamydia and trichomoniasis include:
- Yellow, green, or other unusually colored discharge, which may mix with blood during your menstrual cycle
- Vaginal bleeding when you don’t have a period
- Pain in the lower abdomen, which can feel like period cramps
- Itching, burning, or pain in the vagina — especially during urination or vaginal sex
Also keep in mind that STDs don’t always involve an odor — or any obvious symptoms.
How to deal with it: A five-, seven-, or 10-day course of antibiotics can treat both trichomoniasis and chlamydia.
6. Cervical cancer
Cervical cancer can cause a strong, foul smell in your genital area. This smell, which some people say is like rotting meat, occurs when your body sheds dead tissue or cancer cells that then come out through your vagina.
Cervical cancer can cause a heavier flow or longer periods, and you may notice that the smell gets stronger during your period.
Worldwide, cervical cancer is one of the most common types of canceralthough it is less common in the United States due to the wider rates of annual Pap smears and vaccinations. It is most often diagnosed before menopause, between the ages 35 and 44.
Common symptoms include:
- Spotting or bleeding between periods
- Pain in the lower back, which can feel like period cramps
- Pain or bleeding after sex due to tumor growth
- Urinary retention problem
- Pain and swelling in your legs
- Unintentional weight loss or loss of appetite
How to deal with it: If you notice these symptoms, make an appointment with your OB-GYN for a Pap smear. Depending on the results, your care team may make recommendations further testing and biopsy.
Treatments for cervical cancer include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, or a combination of these.
Perimenopause causes hormonal changes and vaginal dryness that can lead to a unusual vaginal odor during your period.
This is because the pH of your vagina gradually becomes more alkaline and your estrogen levels fluctuate, resulting in heavier and irregular periods that can enhance vaginal odors.
Other signs of perimenopause include:
How to deal with it: Estrogen treatments and vitamins can increase vaginal lubrication and improve odors, as vaginal discharge change in response to a combination of hormonal and nutritional factors.
If you prefer not to take hormones, a healthcare professional can offer more information about other treatment options, including vaginal lubrication.
In most cases, an unusual odor during your period is nothing to worry about. Changing your period products early and gently cleaning your vulva with water and a mild cleanser can clear up any unwanted odors.
If you notice other symptoms, such as nausea or pain, or just feel that something is not right, contact your doctor as soon as possible. They can help you identify possible causes and recommend the right treatment to help you feel better.