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by Neil Baum, MD
Most of us are uncomfortable talking about our waste products, urine and feces. However, changes in the color and odor may signify disease that can be treated or prevented. This article will review causes of discoloration of urine and when there is a change in the odor of urine.
For hundreds of years doctors have looked at urine as a barometer of what is happening in the body. The urine can tell what you have been eating, how much fluid you are consuming, and what diseases you may have. Early doctors even tasted the urine of their patients in order to diagnose their medical conditions. Fortunately, we have made progress and a simple urinalysis can make this determination in seconds.
Urine is an important part of the body’s regulation process. Its job is to remove the extra water and wastes that the kidneys filter out of the blood. The urine is there primarily to get rid of toxins or things that would otherwise build up in the body that would be bad for the body.
When you notice that your urine has changed color, or there’s a strange odor emanating from the toilet, the cause might be something as harmless as what you had for dinner such as asparagus. It also might be a sign of a more serious condition, such as an infection or cancer.
Urine normally varies from pale yellow to deep amber, depending on the concentration of the urine, which is determined by the amount of fluid you consume. Darker urine is usually a sign that you’re not drinking enough water. Correction is as simple as consuming more liquids, especially water.
The opposite is also true. If your urine is very pale, it means that you’re either drinking a lot of fluid, or you’re taking a diuretic or water pill which is a drug that forces the body to eliminate excess water.
Urine can turn a rainbow of colors, and an unusual hue isn’t necessarily cause for alarm. Certain medications can turn the urine fluorescent green or blue, the carotene in carrots can tint it orange, and vitamins can give it a yellow hue. Pyridium, a medication, which is used to treat burning on urination, will turn the urine orange-red.
Seeing red is typically a sign that there is blood in the urine, but before you panic, know that a little blood can produce a dramatic color change. Just like a drop of food coloring will add color to a large volume of food or fluids, it only takes one drop of blood to turn an entire toilet bowl red.
Red urine is usually an ominous sign and can indicate an infection or maybe even cancer. Red blood is a real warning sign and should prompt you to see your doctor or urologist, a doctor who specializes in disease of the kidneys and bladder.
Urine normally doesn’t have a very strong smell. If your urine has a foul odor, you could have an infection or urinary stones, which can create an ammonia-like odor. Diabetics might notice that their urine smells sweet, because of excess sugar.
Some foods can also change urine odor. Asparagus is among the most notorious. What people are smelling when they eat asparagus is the breakdown of a sulfur compound called methyl mercaptan (the same compound found in garlic).
How often do you need to go?
How often you need to go can be as important an indicator of your health as the color or smell of your urine. Most people take bathroom breaks about six to eight times a day, but you might go more or less depending on how much fluid you drink. If you’re constantly feeling the urge to go and it’s not because you’re not drinking extra fluid, causes can include:
- overactive bladder (when you gotta go, you gotta go!)
- urinary tract infection
- interstitial cystitis (painful urination without an infection)
- prostate gland enlargement
The opposite problem, not going to the bathroom enough, can occur when there is a blockage or infection. Or, it can be the result of bad bathroom habits. Some people — especially teachers, surgeons, and anyone else who doesn’t have time for regular bathroom breaks throughout the day — tend to hold it in.
Delaying urination can also cause problems. The bladder can develop a chronic over-distension and will not empty completely. As a result urine is left in the bladder and can be a source for developing a urinary tract infection.
Develop good bathroom habits. Drink whenever you’re thirsty, but certainly increase your fluids before going outside in the hot summer sun or before exercising.
If you’re getting up during the night to use the bathroom, stop drinking three to four hours before bedtime. Limit caffeine, which can irritate the lining of the bladder. Also watch your intake of alcohol, which can have an effect similar to a diuretic.
Finally, don’t hold it in. Don’t delay answering the call of the rest room. Your bladder will thank you.
Bottom Line: Pay attention to the color and odor of your urine. If there is a change, contact your physician.