Chances are you rarely think about what your urine looks like, but your urine’s clarity and color can alert you to both health and hydration issues.
“The color of your urine is a great barometer of whether you’re hydrating well enough. If it’s clear or straw-colored, then you’re drinking sufficient fluid. If it becomes dark yellow or brown, then you are likely somewhat dehydrated,” says UC Irvine Health urologist Dr. Ralph Clayman, a pioneer in the minimally invasive treatment of kidney disease. He recommends drinking at least three quarts of water per day for proper hydration in order to make at least 2.5 quarts of urine a day.
March is National Kidney Month. Clayman and the other specialists at UC Irvine Health Center for Urological Care are urging everyone to pay attention to their kidney health and be alert to signs that a medical checkup is needed.
Clear to yellow urine falls within the normal, healthy range, Clayman says. Odd colors such as blue or orange are usually the result of medications such as certain antibiotics, antidepressants and laxatives. But there are two colors you should never ignore: dark brown and red.
Colors of concern
Sometimes urine will turn pinkish a few hours after you’ve eaten foods with intense red color, such as beets, blackberries and rhubarb. But your urine should return to normal within a day.
If you haven’t recently eaten beets or any other red-hue foods, pink to reddish coloring is cause for concern. It means red blood cells are likely present in a large enough amount to discolor the urine. These blood cells in your urine can be a sign of infection, kidney stones or even cancer. Even if you see your urine turn pink or red one time, you should contact your doctor and get evaluated.
Related: Hard facts about kidney stones ›
Dark brown and foamy urine can indicate the presence of liver disease or possibly old blood and should also prompt you to visit your doctor.
“Dark brown doesn’t always mean disease. It could be that you’re extremely dehydrated. But if you take in more fluid and it remains brown, then it is concerning and you should pay a visit to your physician,” says Clayman, former dean of the UC Irvine Health School of Medicine. “Of course red is really most concerning. It’s a literal and figurative red flag and should never be ignored. See your doctor.”
Best times to check
You don’t have to look in the toilet bowl every time you urinate to keep tabs on your health. Clayman recommends you check twice a day — first thing in the morning and right before bed.
Morning is when your urine will be most concentrated. So, if your morning urine is a pale, straw color, you’re probably well hydrated and healthy. At bedtime, it should look as clear as water or at least pale yellow. If it doesn’t, you may need to boost your fluid intake.
What you can’t see
The best health information you can get from your urine comes not from its color but rather from its unseen qualities. That’s why the “urinate in the cup” routine at your annual checkup is so important. It detects things you cannot see, such as the presence of sugar, which may suggest early-onset diabetes, or proteins that may indicate early kidney disease.
“It’s very important to have an annual urinalysis,” says Clayman. “It can detect not only early signs of disease, but also the presence of red blood cells too few in number to turn the urine red, bacteria or white blood cells that can reveal whether you have a silent infection.”
So pay attention to your urine, Clayman advises. “You should be your own health power advocate — monitor your health and stay well. Problems caught early are the easiest to resolve.”