What does your pee say about your health? More than you’d think. “Most of the variation in urine color has to do with a person’s hydration level and the subsequent concentration of urine,” says Phillip Pierorazio, M.D., Assistant Professor of Urology and Oncology, and Director of the Division of Testis Cancer at the James Buchanan Brady Urological Institute.
“Normal urine can vary in color from colorless or very pale yellow to deep yellows, oranges, and reds. And, the appearance of urine can give some helpful insights into your health and well-being beyond how much water you're drinking.”
Whether or not you care to admit, you notice the color and smell of your urine on a day-to-day (if not hourly) basis. So, here are some of the normal and abnormal characteristics you should look out for the next time you hit the loo—they could indicate whether you’re overhydrated or showing signs of infection, overexertion, even cancer.
You may strive for clear, colorless pee, but in truth, it's OK for urine to have a slight yellow tint. “Clear urine can indicate adequate hydration, but consistent clear urine may indicate overhydration,” Pierorazio says. If you’re flooding your body with water, you may be depleting electrolytes, which can lead to medical issues.
“Typical urine is yellow, due to the presence of a urochrome, a normal molecule released by the breakdown of hemoglobin in the blood,” Pierorazio says. Urine ranging in color from light, straw-colored yellow to deeper yellow is A-OK.
"The most common cause of orange urine is dehydration, but some medications, like phenazopyridine (pyridium) given for urinary tract symptoms, can also make this effect,” Pierorazio says. And before you ask, yes, you can get urinary tract infections, too, though UTIs are far more common in women. If you’re on a carrot-kick, or consuming high levels of vitamin C, that could tint your pee orange as well.
A couple things can cause your urine to take on a red-tinge. Harmlessly, some medications and foods like beets and blackberries can do it; however, red urine can also be a side effect of more urgent conditions. “Red urine can be a sign of hematuria a.k.a. blood in the urine, which happens with vigorous exercise or activity, urinary tract infections, kidney disease, and, rarely, cancers of the urinary tract,” Pierorazio says. Any suspicion of blood in your urine should prompt an evaluation by a physician.
“Common medical causes of brown urine include the breakdown of hemoglobin in the blood, liver, or gastrointestinal disease, or from the breakdown of muscle (from intense exercise or a prolonged pressure injury), Pierorazio says. If you eat a lot of aloe, fava beans, or rhubarb, these foods can also turn your urine brown.
According to Pierorazio, black urine is caused by a rare genetic disorder that is present from the time you were born. Unless you're incredibly unobservant, you don’t have to worry much about this one.
“In addition to giving urine a characteristic, strong odor, asparagus can also cause green urine,” Pierorazio says. Aside from that weird food side effect, rare medications, genetic diseases, and urinary tract infections can also make your pee green.
“Blue urine is caused almost exclusively by medications,” Pierorazio says. This is another one you don’t have to lose sleep over.
“Urine should never appear purple,” Pierorazio says, “but old blood in the urinary system can look very dark red, giving urine an appearance similar to wine.”
Cloudy or milky
Don’t just pay attention to the color of your pee. “Cloudy or milky urine most often indicates the presence of white blood cells and may indicate an infection,” Pierorazio says.
For the most part, if you spot bubbles in your urine, it’s safe. “Excessive bubbles or ‘frothing’ that happens every time you urinate can indicate an excess of protein in your urine,” Pierorazio says. Make adjustments to your diet—especially if you supplement with protein powder—but also note that this can be a sign of kidney disease.
Just as normal urine should have a slight yellow tint, normal urine should have a slight odor. “If the odor is very strong—like ammonia—it may indicate a urinary tract infection, and if it smells sweet, it may be a sign of excess sugar and diabetes,” Pierorazio says. Remember that foods can alter the smell of your urine, particularly asparagus, coffee, and spicy foods.
Going to the bathroom should always be a relief. If your urine has an abnormal color, appearance, or smell, don't hesitate to make an appointment with your physician. A simple urinalysis can evaluate your pee for a variety of medical issues.