A trip to the toilet may be more revealing than you think. “The appearance and smell of your urine—as well as the frequency with which you have to go—can provide many clues to what else is going on in your body,” says Dr. Michael Farber, director of the Executive Health Program at Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, N.J.
If your urine is as colorless as water, well, that’s probably because you’ve been drinking a lot of water. And besides the inconvenience of going to the bathroom many times a day because your bladder is filling up with fluid faster, there’s really nothing medically worrisome about having a light colored output.
If your urine has a brownish, iced tea-colored tinge, that could be a sign that you are dehydrated and the kidney is producing more concentrated (as opposed to diluted) urine. “The urine gives good indications of the body’s level of hydration,” Farber says, “so if a patient complains of dizziness or lightheadedness, you would want to check the urine to rule out dehydration as a cause of the problem.” The ideal shade to strive for is the color of straw. Another reason to get yourself checked out if you see dark urine—especially if it doesn’t lighten up after you drink a few glasses of water—is that the cause could actually be blood. It won’t be as obvious as a bright red drop in the toilet, but it could be a sign of bleeding higher up in the kidney which could indicate an infection, kidney disease or even cancer.
Catching a whiff of something sugary sweet after you pee might actually be a clue to something very serious going on in your body. “A sugary smell might indicate the presence of blood sugar that’s being excreted in the urine,” says Farber. And a high concentration of blood sugar in the urine is one sign of diabetes. The kidney acts as a filter for all sorts of waste that flows through the body. But if your filter is damaged, things can leak out of it and end up being excreted in the urine. In the case of diabetes, excess blood sugar sneaks out through a leaky filter and shows up in the urine. If you are pregnant, changes in the kidney filtration system can result in the presence of sugar in the urine. Whether pregnant or not, if a doctor finds sugar in your urine, he or she should order further tests to determine if diabetes is a concern.
It can be a little bit disconcerting, but, smelling an odd odor when you pee is probably nothing to be worried about. Certain foods—asparagus, most notoriously—produce a sulfur-containing amino acid. So when the food is broken down in the digestive system, those smelly substances are released, filtered through the kidney, and then make their way into the urine where they create an unpleasant scent. As soon as the food responsible has been fully digested and flushed from your system completely, the smell will vanish as well.
Urine that looks nearly neon-colored may seem somewhat alarming, but the cause is most likely nothing more sinister than your daily multivitamin pill. “The B vitamins and carotene in particular give the urine a deeper, more golden color,” says Dr. Deborah J. Lightner, associate professor of urology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. And don’t worry: That brightly colored urine means you’re simply pissing away all of your expensive supplements. The urine color can be affected as the vitamins filter through your system—even as they are being absorbed and utilized.
A spot of blood
Seeing a splash of red in the toilet can mean many things—some quite benign, others quite serious. “For that reason, you should always have your doctor check your urine if you see blood,” warns Lightner. “In an otherwise healthy young woman, the chances are overwhelmingly in favor of it being a sign of a urinary tract infection, but blood in the urine is also one of the seven deadly signs of bladder cancer in both women and in men.” Beyond the possibilities of infection or (worst case scenario) cancer, blood in the urine can also be caused by microscopic trauma or tears (not uncommon after an endurance event like a marathon), kidney stones, or as a side effect of taking blood-thinning medication or daily aspirin therapy.
Always gotta go
You’ve seen the commercials of people racing to the bathroom in a panic because they have to go so often and so urgently. There are a variety of possible causes, and unless you are going so often that it’s truly affecting your life, frequent bathroom urges probably are not cause for concern (or for taking the medications advertised in those commercials). Look first at your diet and lifestyle. If you’ve suddenly picked up the habit of toting a water bottle with you everywhere and have greatly increased your H2O intake, the reason could be as simple as the fact that you’re filling your bladder up more often and more quickly than you used to—and, consequently, it needs to be emptied more frequently than it used to. Or maybe you’ve recently changed your diet to include foods that contain more water (such as fruits and vegetables) and act as diuretics, or begun taking medications (like drugs used to treat high blood pressure) which are also diuretics. One of the common symptoms of a urinary tract infection is an urgent need to pee (often without being able to once you get to the toilet). Growing older can also be to blame for increased frequency and urgency in both men and women—as the way the kidney and the bladder make and discharge urine changes with age. For men, however, the prostate may play a role. It’s not uncommon as men age for the prostate to become enlarged and cause an obstruction that causes weak urine flow and prevents the bladder from emptying effectively, which then creates the need to go more often.
A little leakage
It’s one of those topics no one likes to talk about, but a lot of women—even very young women who have never gone through childbirth—experience some type of urinary incontinence. “Stress incontinence is a condition in which the muscles of the pelvic floor can’t handle the increased pressure of high impact activities like running or gymnastics, or even something like coughing or sneezing,” Lightner says. And when the pelvic floor is too weak to withstand that sort of pressure, the result is that a small amount of urine will leak out. The situation often begins—or gets significantly worse—after a woman gives birth. The best solution is to strengthen the pelvic floor by regularly doing Kegel exercises (in which you repeatedly contract and release those muscles as if you were trying to stop your flow of urine). Another type of urinary incontinence is called urge incontinence, and it is characterized, not by weak muscles, but by a bladder malfunction. “The bladder will fire without your permission, so you won’t necessarily get the signal to head to the bathroom before your bladder decides it’s time to empty itself,” says Lightner.
A burning sensation
If you are suddenly experiencing pain when you pee, it’s highly likely that you are experiencing one of the first signs of a urinary tract infection. Such infections are incredibly common among sexually active, pre-menopausal women, thanks to the fact that the female anatomy puts a relatively short urinary canal in close proximity with the vagina and rectum. That proximity makes it very easy for bacteria to find its way into the urethra and up the urinary canal. Oral antibiotics can clear the infection up within days, and increasing fluids can help flush out bacteria to shorten the duration of the infection. The male anatomy makes urinary tract infections a much rarer event for men, but they can happen—and, Lightner warns, similar signs and symptoms in men can also signal an infection of the prostate.