If You Think Your Vagina Smells Weird, This is Probably Why

Vera Papisova—in her classic mix of honesty and comedy—discusses living with chronic BV, a vaginal disease that affects one-third of women. Photo by Sandy Kim.

Every month, the day after my period ends, I wake up, I pull off my underwear, and I inspect the discharge. I pray to Beyoncé that it smells like sweaty musk – that’s what my discharge smells like when my vagina is healthy. If it smells like a fish market on a hot summer’s eve, I have bacterial vaginosis (BV) again.

If I do nothing, my underwear and my sanity are doomed. By the end of Day 1, #MyCalvins are soaked in anchovy-scented discharge that is milky and sometimes even frothy in consistency. My milkshake brings no boys to the yard, and the intensely piscine aroma is by no means your ordinary jean heat stink.

On Day 2, the discharge now comes with an itch. The more I itch, the worse it gets. Sex has become painful. By Day 5, all of the itching has unlocked a new feature: being so sore to the touch that I feel bruised. At this point, it will only take 20 minutes after I take a shower for my fresh undies to be soaked and stinky again.

The first time I got BV was 2 years ago: I’m 23 and about to go on a weekend trip with my new boyfriend. Having never heard of BV, I misdiagnose myself with a yeast infection on Day 5. I don’t want to wait for a doctor, so the night before my trip, I go to CVS and I spend $30 on Monistat 1, because “Monistat 1 single-dose products may be the perfect solution for women who are busy and don’t have time to take 3 to 7 doses to treat a yeast infection.” A perfect solution!? I applied it before I went to bed.

The next morning, I wake up to the worst pain my vagina has ever felt. If you’ve ever been bitten by a horsefly, imagine being bitten 100 times—but in your vagina. My vagina spent the weekend vomiting Monistat treatment/hot lava into 5 different pairs of my best cotton panties, while I spent the weekend running to the bathroom every hour to apply Vagisil (it barely numbed the pain.)

I tell my new boyfriend I can’t have sex because of a yeast infection gone rogue – if he wants to have sex with this vagina, he should know what this vagina has to deal with. He tells me I don’t have to explain myself, that he would never question me if I don’t want to have sex for some reason. He doesn’t want to know the details. I make sure to leave out nothing, and after being thoroughly grossed out, he asks if I still wanted to hang out with him even though I’m not feeling well. This is how I know I have found a good egg.

After we get back to the city, I go to the doctor and tell her my Monistat nightmare. She tells me that most of her patients have similar stories about Monistat, and that my yeast infection is not a yeast infection, but bacterial vaginosis (BV). This is the first time I’ve ever heard of BV, probably because nobody talks about it. Well, I’m going to talk about it.  

The truth is that BV is the most common vaginal infection for women ages 15-44. It’s not an STI or an STD. You can be a virgin and still get BV. It’s not contagious, and you can’t get it from toilet seats, towels, or gym equipment. For some women, having sex with just one person can throw their pH balance off, causing BV, while other women can have multiple partners and be perfectly balanced.

After two days on antibiotics, the smell and itch faded. After four days, most of the symptoms were gone. After I finish the 7-day course of antibiotics to treat my BV, I get an actual yeast infection. Is this a sick joke? No, this is my life. After another trip to the gyno, and one more pill (yeast infections are treated with a single dose of Diflucan), my vagina is healthy and happy again.

Medically, BV is considered recurrent when a woman gets it 4 times in one year. After this incident, I got BV every single month, the day after my period, for 19 months. I went to countless gynecologists during the first few months, and they all told me the same thing: there is no known cause or prevention for BV.

I started researching. I bought books, spoke to more doctors, and called friends who told me they’d had BV, too. I learned that vaginas have “good” and “bad” bacteria that keep them healthy, and that vagninas also have yeast. When there is too much yeast, you get a yeast infection, and when there is an overgrowth of bad bacteria, you get an undergrowth of good bacteria. This is BV. If you’ve ever gotten a yeast infection after being on any antibiotic, it’s because antibiotics kill ALL bacteria (not just bad), and this makes your vagina more susceptible to getting an overgrowth of yeast.

After taking antibiotics every month for almost a year, I tried changing my birth control to see if hormones were the cause. I still got BV. I tried not having sex with my boyfriend for a month. I still got BV. A nurse told me I could try putting a raw garlic clove up my vagina as a remedy – it didn’t work. I douched with apple cider vinegar. Douching may temporarily get rid of the smell and discharge, but a week later, I got the worst case of BV I’d ever had. I tried tea tree oil baths, and they didn’t work. I’ve tried inserting a tampon soaked in greek yogurt, which did alleviate the itching, but it didn’t cure anything. I tried going to a nutritionist and changing my diet to exclude sugar/alcohol and include more fermented food and drink (like kombucha). I still got BV.

Here’s what worked: probiotics. In the same way eating greek yogurt while on antibiotics may help prevent yeast infections, taking daily probiotics may help build up your good bacteria and prevent an overgrowth of bad bacteria, which can ultimately prevent BV. 

The only way I’ve been able to get rid of BV is to take daily probiotics, and only after about 2-3 months of doing this, I stopped getting BV for good. (Porn star Vanessa Veracruz also recommends taking folic acid capsules on top of probiotics.) So, if you are suffering from BV, skip the at-home remedies you found on Google. I’ve tried them all, and they don’t work. Instead, educate yourself about your vaginal health – you’d be surprised how much they don’t tell us in health class. So, do your own research, and talk to your doctor about starting a daily regimen of probiotics. If it helped my vagina, maybe it can help your vagina, too.

Special thanks to Dr. Vanessa Cullins and everyone at Planned Parenthood for helping me with my BV research.  

Vera Papisova is a writer and sometimes standup comedian who writes for Teen Vogue, Yahoo Style and Complex. Read her previous article for Slutever, Ask a Porn Star with Lily LaBeau, HERE :)

** A different, shorter version of this essay appeared on TeenVogue.com on back in September. 



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