hen it comes to talking about vaginal smells of any sort, I’m firmly on “Team Normalize That Vaginas and Vulvas Aren’t Supposed to Smell Like Fruit or Flowers” because, well, that’s not what they are. In fact, a perfectly healthy vagina can smell sour, bittersweet, or metallic due to normal variations in vaginal flora (aka the mix of yeast and bacteria within the vagina) caused by anything from changes in your diet or your sweat levels to hormonal shifts, and yes, your period. But what does it mean when a vaginal smell lingers post-period or shows up afterward?
According to obstetrician-gynecologist Himali Maniar Patel, MBBS, DGO, it can be totally normal to have some degree of vaginal odor after your period ends—and not just when you’re actively bleeding, when it might seem obvious that things could smell a little off down there.
It’s true that certain vaginal smells can signal an infection caused by an imbalance in the vaginal flora (more on that below). And ironically, some of the biggest culprits behind that imbalance are “hygienic” products that promise to make you smell better down there. But, a post-period smell doesn’t necessarily signify the presence of any condition. As it turns out, certain menstruation-related shifts can cause a normal, temporary post-period odor.
Why your vagina might smell after your period
A couple of different causes could be behind vaginal smelliness once your period subsides. A big one: leftover blood. “A common reason for a metallic smell is the presence of iron in your period blood,” says Amy Wetter, MD, a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist at Pediatrix Medical Group. “This can linger, especially if you have brown discharge from leftover or old blood and tissue still making its way out.”
“A common reason for a metallic smell is the presence of iron in your period blood.” —Amy Wetter, MD, board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist
Some different-than-usual bacteria might also be growing or proliferating in your vagina post-period, causing a shift in how things smell. “The vagina requires a low pH (acidic pH) in order to maintain a healthy bacterial balance,” says Dr. Wetter. “Since period blood has a high pH (basic pH), this can allow certain kinds of bacteria to flourish [more so than others], which may cause [temporary] odor or discharge.”
Indeed, Dr. Patel says that “a buildup of bacteria on the surface of your vulva or in your vagina” is a major potential cause of any kind of post-period funk. “This can also happen more so around the time of your period due to hormonal changes and increased moisture near the area,” she adds.
Another surprising culprit: leaving a tampon in for too long or after your period is done. (On that note, here’s your friendly reminder to change your tampon every four to eight hours, at most.) The blood and secretions that collect on a tampon can lead to a “foul” or “rotten” odor as they allow for bacteria to grow, says Dr. Wetter. Not to mention, a tampon sitting in the vagina for too long can throw off the balance of your existing vaginal flora, which can increase your risk of an infection, like bacterial vaginosis (BV) or a yeast infection.
Both of these infections can cause vaginal discharge that can have a strong odor (in the case of BV, a fishy smell, and with a yeast infection, a sour or yeasty smell like sourdough) at any point in time—which is why it’s important to investigate further if you notice excessive smell or discharge post-period, says Dr. Patel, particularly if it’s accompanied by other symptoms of an infection, like itching, burning, redness, or pain during penetrative sex.
How can you address a post-period smell?
Any non-infection-related vaginal odor you may notice after your period will subside on its own without any special treatment. But if you’re looking to clear it up more quickly—or prevent a post-period smell in the first place—it may be helpful to brush up on your vaginal hygiene practices.
Dr. Wetter and Dr. Patel suggest doing the following:
- Shower daily, using only warm water to gently clean the vulva and around the opening of the vagina
- Shower and/or change immediately after working out
- Avoid using any scented vaginal-care or hygienic products
- Do not douche
- Wear loose-fitting pants and cotton underwear
- Stay well-hydrated
- Consume probiotics to help stave off infections (for example, by eating gut-healthy yogurts)
When should you see a doctor for a post-period odor
Dr. Wetter encourages seeking medical care if any unusual-to-you vaginal odor lasts more than two to three days after your cycle, if it’s accompanied by fever or chills, or if you experience pelvic pain. Also, if you notice discharge along with the smell, she adds, and it’s yellow or green, it’s a good idea to see a doctor. “These are all signs that you may have an infection (that may require medication to resolve), and not just a temporary change due to your menses,” she says.
Seeing a physician can help you either rule out an infection or receive treatment for one, if they determine that that’s the cause of the odor.
The good news? Again, most post-period odors are totally normal, temporary, innocuous, and will go away on their own. And even if you do learn that your vaginal smell stems from an infection, the kinds of infections at play here are typically easily treatable, says Dr. Patel. “With the right treatment and care, you can quickly get back on track and feel more comfortable in your own skin.”