Here’s What It Could Mean If Your Vagina Smells Like Ammonia
It’s probably worth seeing a doctor.
The care and keeping of your vagina can cause you to Google some pretty weird stuff. But for the sake of your privates, it's worth getting the answers. For instance.... Why does my vagina smell like ammonia, and what can I do about it? Super strong odors down there are often a sign of some health conditions, especially if those odors remind you of cleaning products.
There are a number of different things that play into the scent of your vagina. “Sometimes your activity level, or how much you sweat, for example, may be factors that influence your vagina’s scent,” explains Dr. Amy Roskin, M.D., board-certified OB/GYN and chief medical officer for The Pill Club digital health company. “In other cases, infection or an overgrowth of a normally occurring bacteria can cause vaginal odor.”
What exactly does a healthy vagina smell like? Well, everyone is different. “There’s not one answer to this question; it really varies based on your physiology,” says Roskin. But what’s important is to know what your normal is, so you can detect when something is off. “All of us with a vagina usually know that awkward feeling if a new and strange smell comes our way,” explains board-certified OB/GYN Dr. Sherry Ross, M.D.
The key player when it comes to vaginal odors is your pH balance, which is normally on the acidic side. “The vagina is especially sensitive to different changes in your daily environment,” Ross tells Romper. “Anything that affects this delicate balance will affect the smell, type of discharge, and its consistency.” So, what could it mean if your vagina or discharge smells like ammonia? There are a few possibilities.
For starters, this scent may point to bacterial vaginosis (BV), an infection that can make your vagina smell like ammonia, cause gray or green discharge, and create irritation. “Bacterial vaginosis is an imbalance in the vaginal pH, caused by an overgrowth of a certain kind of bacteria,” explains Dr. Sara Twogood, M.D., board-certified OB/GYN in Los Angeles and co-founder of Female Health Education and the online magazine Female Health Collective. “Symptoms are an increase in vaginal discharge, a change in vaginal odor that is usually described as ‘fishy’ or ‘chemical smelling,’ and vulvovaginal irritation and inflammation. It can also cause pelvic discomfort.”
Circumstances like having unprotected sex, new sexual partners, and taking certain antibiotics can increase your risk of BV. And according to a 2018 International Journal of Microbiology study, douching may also increase that risk. So, stick to mild soap and water externally for hygiene, as internal products like douching “can disturb the normal vaginal pH and microbiome and can make you more prone to infection or inflammation,” notes Roskin.
Antibiotics are often prescribed to clear up the infection, so seeing a doctor as soon as possible is recommended. Plus, there are other infections that are associated with discharge and odor, like trichomoniasis and yeast infection, “so it’s important to get evaluated and tested to determine what is causing your symptoms,” advises Roskin.
There may also be a dietary element to the smell. “It’s well-known that ‘you are what you eat,’ especially as it relates to your vaginal odor and hormonal balance,” Ross says. There are certain foods that affect your vaginal health, and eating things like asparagus, garlic, onions, red meat, or curry can have a direct effect on the way things are scented down there. “Onions, garlic and asparagus are at the top of the list, giving the vagina (and urine) a foul odor,” Ross explains. “These known culprits break down into your body, sweep out into your sweat glands, and can make an offensive odor in all bodily secretions.” It's quite possible that the strong odor could remind you of ammonia, although more research is needed to really understand this phenomenon.
According to Dr. Monica Grover, D.O., double board-certified gynecologist and the head gynecologist at VSPOT medical spa, diets that are high in protein instead of carbohydrates can result in “a high ammonia content that is being filtered into the urine and lead to this distinctive smell.” Grover adds, “Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose for energy, but when there is a diet low in carbohydrates and a higher protein intake, then more ammonia is broken down and concentrated in the urine.” If you’ve recently been eating more protein than usual, that could be the culprit.
Of all the things it could smell like, why might a vagina take on the odor of ammonia? Well, it could simply be a natural part of the surrounding environment, so to speak. “Dehydration can lead to an intensification in urine odor due to increased concentration of those odor-producing compounds,” Roskin explains. Urine contains ammonia, so if you’re not flushing your system with enough water, the smell can get a bit strong.
In this instance, a hefty ammonia smell down there could mean a person simply needs to drink more water. “It’s a great idea to drink more water and try to observe if this lessens the effect, essentially through dilution,” says Roskin.
But there could also be more going on than simple dehydration. “If the urine starts to smell like ammonia, it could be a sign of dehydration, but also of renal disease or unwanted muscle breakdown,” Grover notes. “This warrants a trip with the physician for adequate testing to determine the root cause.”
When To See A Doctor
Given the many possibilities, an ammonia smell in your vaginal area should not be ignored. “If someone has vulvar of vaginal irritation and inflammation, odor that is different or concerning, or feels something is ‘off’ but isn't sure what — those are all reasons to be evaluated,” notes Twogood. If anything feels or smells different than usual, checking in with your physician is a wise move. Chances are, it's your body's way of letting you know that something is up down there, and that it's time for a checkup.
Ranjit, E., Raghubanshi, B. R., Maskey, S., & Parajuli, P. (2018). Prevalence of Bacterial Vaginosis and Its Association with Risk Factors among Nonpregnant Women: A Hospital Based Study. International journal of microbiology, 2018, 8349601. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/8349601
Dr. Amy Roskin, M.D., board-certified OB/GYN and Chief Medical Officer for The Pill Club
Dr. Sherry Ross, M.D., OB/GYN, women’s health expert, author of She-ology, and co-founder of URJA Intimates skin care
Dr. Sara Twogood, M.D., board-certified OB/GYN in Los Angeles and co-founder of Female Health Education and online magazine Female Health Collective
Dr. Monica Grover, D.O., double board-certified gynecologist and head gynecologist at VSPOT
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