No one really wants to think about it, but peeing is a necessity of life – and health. And besides the benefit of feeling (literally) relieved when you urinate, the characteristics of your pee hold important clues about what’s going on in your body.
It’s pretty helpful, actually. Your pee can tell you when you’re well hydrated, or if you need to drink more water, and when something is off and it’s time to talk to your doctor.
Most of the time we just do our business, and the next thing we think about is washing our hands. But every now and then you may notice that something is different about your urine. Maybe it’s dark yellow and smells stronger than usual. Maybe it’s cloudy or it burned when exiting. When should you talk to a doctor?
For the record, no health topic is embarassing to doctors. But we get it – talking about what happens in the bathroom can feel awkward. We’re here to answer the question: What does my pee say about my health? We’ll cover how the urinary system works, how to tell if your pee is normal, and what to do when it’s not.
What is urine? How the urinary system works
Your urinary system has an important purpose – it filters waste and excess fluid from your blood, creating a byproduct called urine (or pee), then escorts it out of the body. Several different organs make up the urinary tract, and they work together in a specific order. Your urinary system includes two kidneys, two ureters, your bladder and urethra.
Your kidneys are two fist-sized organs located right below your ribcage on either side of your spine. Kidneys keep the body’s fluids filtered and balanced by removing liquid waste (called urea) and keeping water and important chemicals like sodium and potassium at the right levels. Each day, your kidneys filter an estimated 120-150 quarts of blood in order to balance fluids and remove waste. In total, your kidneys produce about 1-2 quarts of urine a day.
Ureters and bladder
After your kidneys do their work, the urine passes through your ureters (two thin tubes) and into your bladder. Located within your pelvis between your hip bones, your bladder is a balloon-like organ that stretches and expands when it fills with urine. It serves as a kind of holding tank for pee until it’s time to remove it. Because urine contains waste products and bacteria, it’s important to pee frequently. If pee is held too long, or if the bladder doesn’t fully empty when you go, bacteria have the opportunity to multiply, leading to a greater risk for infection.
We can’t voluntarily control our kidneys, but we are able to control our bladder. So when we feel the presence of urine (the urge to pee) and decide that it’s the right time and place to go, we use our pelvic muscles to squeeze our bladder and move the urine out. This sends the urine into a connected tube called a urethra, which then leads out of the body so our pee can exit. Women and men both have a urethra, although their anatomical positioning is different.
Healthy urine is usually a pale to medium yellow color, it’s clear, and has a subtle pee odor. These characteristics tell you that you’re drinking enough water, and nothing is visibly abnormal.
When we’re dehydrated, our pee will smell strongly of ammonia and look dark yellow or amber in color because it hasn’t been diluted with enough water. Soon after you increase your water intake, you should notice that the color and smell of your pee becomes more normal again.
Take a look at your pee on a regular basis so you'll know what's normal for you and be able to act more quickly if something seems off.
Signs your pee isn’t normal
Pee can be abnormal for several reasons. Most of them aren’t a cause for concern, but sometimes it can be a symptom of a more serious issue. Here are some signs that your pee might not be healthy:
Dark yellow or amber pee
Dark yellow or amber-colored urine is highly concentrated, signaling that you’re very dehydrated and need to drink water as soon as possible. Even drinking a glass or two after noticing dark yellow pee can make a difference the next time you go. When your urine is back to a lighter yellow color, you’ll know you’re hydrated again.
Clear or colorless pee
Pee that’s completely colorless and looks like water is a sign that you’re overhydrated. (Yep, that’s a real thing.) Too much water in your system can dilute your body’s delicate balance of water, sodium and electrolytes. Being overhydrated can lead to something called water intoxication. Your kidneys can usually handle it if you happen to drink more water than usual (even a lot more than usual), but if water intake is excessive, it can lead to serious health problems. Severe cases of overhydration are rare, but if your electrolytes drop too quickly, it can be life-threatening.
Pink or red pee
Urine with a tinge of pink, red or rusty brown suggests that blood is present. When urine has blood in it it’s called hematuria. Hematuria can be caused by a variety of things, including kidney stones, kidney disease, a urinary tract infection (UTI), an injury to the kidney (often from impact during contact sports), an enlarged prostate, cancer or another condition. If you notice blood in your urine, don’t be alarmed, but make an appointment with your primary care doctor as soon as you can. They can run laboratory tests on your urine or refer you to a urologist to help diagnose what’s causing it.
When urine appears cloudy or milky in consistency, there can be many causes, including dehydration, kidney stones, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), UTIs or other changes to your health. Try drinking more water to see if that changes it back to a clear, light yellow. If that doesn’t help, talk to your doctor right away – especially if you have other symptoms like pain or a burning sensation when you urinate.
Pee that smells bad
Just like the symptoms above, a bad odor to your pee can have many causes. Some of these include dehydration (strong concentration of ammonia), certain foods (most familiar, asparagus), vitamins and supplements, or an underlying medical condition. If you’re well hydrated, you haven’t eaten asparagus recently and you aren’t taking vitamins that might be causing it, talk to your doctor right away.
Other symptoms when you pee
Aside from the color and odor of your urine, if you notice other symptoms like pain, a burning sensation, the sudden urge to pee, urine leaking or anything else that’s different – these could be signs of an underlying issue that might need timely treatment. Talk to your doctor about what you’re experiencing so you can get a diagnosis and treatment plan if needed.
Everyone goes on their own schedule, but generally, urinating 6-8 times in 24 hours is considered normal for someone who’s healthy, and isn’t pregnant. If you’re in the bathroom more often than that, you may be experiencing frequent urination.
Another condition that’s often mistaken for frequent urination, is overactive bladder (OAB). Overactive bladder is a separate condition that makes you feel like you have to pee more often than you need to, or you experience sudden strong urges to urinate.
A related condition involving the bladder is incontinence, which is involuntary urination that can result in leaking. Incontinence is more common as people get older but can also happen after childbirth or from other causes. Pelvic floor therapy can help.
Keep yourself (and your pee) healthy
Peeing is important – it’s how fluid waste leaves our body, and it keeps many of our other systems working smoothly. Here are some things to remember that can help you keep your urinary tract healthy (and the rest of you, too).
Drink plenty of water
Our bodies are made up of 50-60% water, depending on the person. And the water ratio in our blood is even higher, at 90%. That’s why it’s so important to drink enough water each day. Among many other benefits, staying hydrated regulates your temperature, helps you maintain a healthy blood pressure, delivers oxygen and nutrients to your cells, improves constipation and is, of course, essential to the urinary system.
So, how much water should we drink each day? For a generally healthy person, the recommended daily water intake is 4-6 glasses. Aim to drink enough to need to use the bathroom at least every few hours. If you have certain health conditions or take a diuretic medication, your doctor may recommend that you drink more water than average.
Physical activity has so many benefits to our overall health, from helping us maintain a healthy weight to improving how we manage stress. It’s even good for our urinary health. Regular exercise can help strengthen your pelvic floor muscles to give your urinary system more support and better muscle control. Exercise also helps our bodies metabolize food and fluids more efficiently and can prevent constipation.
Be mindful of your food, drinks and medications
Certain foods and drinks can irritate your bladder. Some of these include alcohol, caffeine, spicy foods, tomato-based foods, chocolate, acidic fruits (mainly citrus) and more.
Go when you need to go
When you feel the need to pee, don’t wait very long. The more time urine spends sitting in your bladder, the higher your chance for bacteria to grow and possibly lead to an infection.
Empty your bladder fully
For the same reason, always try to empty your bladder until nothing is left. When it’s emptied each time, there’s much less bacteria hanging around in your urinary tract, lowering your risk of infection.
Don’t strain to pee
Your bladder is designed to release urine very effectively simply by gently squeezing the muscles surrounding the bladder. There’s no need to bear down with your abdominal muscles the way one does for a bowel movement. Using more pressure can cause your pelvic muscles to tense and can lead to issues with incontinence. If you feel like you need to use more force to get your urine out, that could be a sign of a urinary problem and you should talk to your doctor.
Do pelvic floor exercises
Pelvic floor exercises like Kegels are small squeezing movements that can help strengthen your pelvic floor muscles – those are the ones supporting your bladder and other urinary functions. Strengthening these muscles can give you more control of your urinary and bowel functions, and can even relieve pelvic pain. Kegel exercises are sometimes described as pretending you need to pee, but then holding it in.
When to talk to a doctor about irregular urine
Pee isn’t the most fun topic, but if you pay attention, it can hold important clues about your health.
The next time you’re in the loo, try to remember the healthy pee chart. Once you’re more aware of what certain changes in your urine might mean, you’ll have a better idea about what your body is telling you. Sometimes it’s just a hint to drink more water, but if you notice changes like cloudiness, blood, a bad odor or anything else out of the ordinary, make it a priority to talk to your doctor. Whether it’s your primary care doctor, your OB-GYN doctor or your child’s pediatrician, they’re all there to help.
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