For SELF, by Amy Marturana.
Your pee can tell you a lot about your health. While its color is a pretty good indicator of your hydration levels, dietary habits, and potentially, undiagnosed medical conditions, its smell can also clue you in to what’s going on inside your body.
“Normal urine, if you’re fairly hydrated, generally has a very limited amount of smell,” Ojas Shah, M.D., NYC-based urologist and professor of urology at Columbia University Medical Center and ColumbiaDoctors Midtown, tells SELF. Sometimes you may notice that your pee is a little smellier than usual. A slight change or an increased potency is most likely due to something very minor, like a food you ate. But there are some odors that may signal an underlying health issue.
Here are all the things that are likely to give you smelly urine, from the totally benign to the potentially concerning.
1. You’re dehydrated.
If you’re not drinking enough water, your pee will take on a strong ammonia scent. Without enough H2O to dilute your urine, it becomes more concentrated with waste products and therefore, darker in color and more odorous. Drink more water, and the smell should go back to normal.
“If you're not drinking enough water, your pee will take on a strong ammonia scent.”
2. You have a urinary tract infection or bladder infection.
“A urine infection will make your urine smell pretty foul at times,” Shah says. This could signal a variety of bladder problems, like a UTI, bladder infection, or inflammation of the bladder (cystitis). If you notice your pee doesn’t just smell strong, but it smells bad, you should see a doctor to get it checked out.
3. You drank a ton of coffee.
Ever drink a ton of coffee on a particularly exhausting day, and thought you were going crazy because then your pee kind of maybe smelled a little bit like coffee? Well, it’s not your imagination. Shah explains that no one knows the exact reason — “I don’t think anybody has spent the time or money to find out why,” he notes — but some sort of byproduct after the coffee is broken down retains that smell, so you can still recognize it after it’s been excreted.
4. You ate a bunch of garlic and onions.
They don’t just make your breath reek, but garlic and onions can actually make your urine smelly, too. Again, Shah explains, something the body produces when it breaks these down maintains the odor even in the urine. It’s not surprising, when you think about how permanent the stench seems in your mouth, that it can somehow survive the body’s most rigorous cleansing process, too.
5. You ate asparagus.
It’s the classic culprit of smelly urine, though not everyone suffers from post-asparagus pee stench. “It happens, we think, because there’s an enzyme in some people’s bodies that breaks down asparagus in a certain way, which makes it have a certain smell,” Shah explains. Experts suggest that some people just don’t have that enzyme, and therefore, will never know what the rest of us are complaining about.
6. You have diabetes.
“Hundreds of years ago physicians could know people had diabetes by tasting their urine,” Shah says. “It tasted sweet.” These days, your doc definitely isn’t taking a sip to investigate — thank goodness for advances in modern medicine. But people with undiagnosed or poorly controlled diabetes may notice they have sweet-smelling urine. (If you don’t have diabetes and just go on a sugar binge, it won’t have the same effect, because your body effectively makes insulin and keeps your blood sugar levels in check.)
7. Your intestines are leaking into your bladder.
A fistula is an abnormal connection between two body parts that can develop as a result of injury, infection, surgery, or inflammation. “A fistula can develop between the bladder and intestines,” Shah explains, and can mix the intestinal contents and bladder contents, making the urine smell pretty foul. You may also see particles (basically feces) in your urine if you have one. “This may happen in people with an inflammatory bowel disease, like Crohn’s, or bad diverticulitis [digestive tract inflammation or infection],” Shah explains. It can also happen with some cancers, or as a result of radiation therapy in that area. Always see a doctor immediately if your urine smells foul, especially if you have any of these preexisting conditions.
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