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UPDATED: Feb. 23, 2021 —

You’re with your girl and can’t help but notice an unpleasant odor that hits you every time she opens her legs. You try to ignore it, but can’t. Now your mind is running. Do you say something? Does she have an STD? Is she nasty? Do you still hit?

The good news is that in many cases it’s not an STD. Vaginas often develop a pungent, fishy smell due to a bacterial imbalance within its ecosystem. When a woman’s pH balance is thrown off, a gynecological issue called “Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)” can occur. This infection isn’t contagious and isn’t sexually transmitted, but it is sexually associated.

So relax… There won’t be any transferring of harmful bacteria into your system, but there are several things you should know about BV to help maintain sexual health for both parties. Read On.

That Smell Isn’t Normal

Vaginas may not always smell like sunshine, but a pungent, fishy odor is an indication that something is wrong. All vaginas have a natural smell based on individual body chemistry. Whenever there is something that seems to be off about the vagina in appearance or smell, refrain from sexual activity until the issue is addressed by a health care provider. A proper diagnosis of the issue is essential to maintaining sexual health for all parties.

Vaginas Have Sensitive Ecosystems

Vaginas contain delicate ecosystems that are comprised of good and bad bacteria, and its balance is easily thrown off. “Women should not douche. It throws off the vagina’s PH. “ says Shan Broodram, a clinical sexologist. “Women also shouldn’t use scented products down there. The vagina is a self-cleaning system and doesn’t need scents or artificial fragrances to assist it in cleansing. Even inserting the wrong kind of tampons or leaving them in for too long can throw off vaginal bacterial balance. Underwear that’s not cotton and created with heavy dyes can also cause imbalance.” A woman’s period can also throw off her pH.

As a concerned partner, it’s important to know the basics of what belongs near the vagina and what doesn’t. “Feminine sprays and washes may smell good and even have great marketing campaigns, but they cause more harm than good,” Dr. Roshini Raj M.D. adds.

Be mindful of the things you use during sex as well. Certain lubricants, condom types, unclean sex toys and even your own saliva can throw off vaginal pH. Make sure lubes are free of harsh chemicals, toys are cleaned before using and rinse with mouthwash before going down on her.

 

BV is Hella Common and You Could be a Carrier

More than 21 million women contract BV annually. It’s a major issue and best handled when both partners are informed. With a simple trip to a health care provider, a woman can receive a proper diagnosis and treatment of the infection.

Here’s what else men should know according to Denise Asafu-Adjei MD, MPH:

  • Men can have bacteria on their penis that are associated with BV in women and thus,

    can be carriers.

  • In current practice, men do not require treatment if female partners have it. However,

    things are changing as we learn more about this common condition.

  • A recent study by Mehta et al from the University of Illinois at Chicago conducted a

    study in 168 Kenyan couples and showed that baseline penile microbiota accurately

    predicted BV incidence in women who did not have BV at baseline. This study suggests

    that treating the penile microbiome in some way may reduce BV incidence in women.

  • There is currently an open-label, multi-center, parallel group randomized controlled trial

    in Australia by Vodstrcil et al called StepUp for treating women diagnosed with BV and

    their male partners.

Prescription antibiotics are used to treat BV and should be taken as prescribed. Shan Boodram advises against heading to the Internet to self-diagnose and treat the condition. “When you search, “I have a bizarre smell down there,” a bunch of misinformation will come up,” she says. “Most women who have BV misdiagnose themselves as having a yeast infection. Then they’re on a really expensive path of buying over-the-counter treatments that are not going to give them the results they want, and they are still left with the symptoms and discomfort.”

Talking about BV with your girl can help to normalize the conversation, minimize embarrassment and create a realistic timeline for recovery—and sex.

Signs to be Aware of

“Although men are carriers, they usually do not exhibit any classic signs or symptoms,” says Asafu-Adjei. “Men may experience signs of urethritis (infection or inflammation of the urethra) such as penile discharge, pain with urination, or itching around the penis or urethra.” Men should look for signs in their female partners too, which include thin, white/gray malodorous discharge.

Untreated BV Gets Worse

Men may be off the hook, but women aren’t. Although the vagina is self-cleaning and has the ability to balance itself out, bacterial vaginosis isn’t an infection that will clear itself up. Untreated BV can increase a woman’s risk of getting an STI. If she’s pregnant it can cause preterm labor or impact the baby’s weight. The issue is beyond just a smell.

Get Educated

Here’s the best way to lower your risk of getting BV:

  • Minimize multiple and/or new sexual partners. This applies to men and women.
  • Consult your primary care doctor ASAP to determine the best treatment plan and avoid sexual activity until you are properly assessed.
  • No douching.
  • Cover sex toys with condoms before use.
  • Become educated about the infection and lifestyle changes that can help stave off bacterial imbalance.

Keepherawesome.com is a campaign created to support women through BV. The site educates about BV, its symptoms, the differences between a yeast infection and BV, and provides a guide to assist in forming questions for doctor visits. It also provides a community for women to engage with others who have been experiencing the effects of BV to remind them that they aren’t alone.

Use this site as a reference to becoming educated along with your lady. This approach helps to normalize a common gynecological issue that almost every woman experiences in her lifetime.

Be Supportive

The female body changes daily and sometimes your girl just might not feel her best. Show your compassion—it will score you points for later. Offer to pick up her medications, stock her fridge with a water bottle (to help cleanse body) and probiotics to assist in balancing her natural flora.

Most important, remove the shame. She may feel self-conscious about her body and odor post BV, so make sure to be sensitive, but honest.

Glamazon Tyomi is CASSIUS’ resident sexpert. Follow her at @GlamazonTyomi.