What Your Urine's Color and Odor Says About Your Health

A quick glimpse into the toilet can warn you of potential problems.

Clear as urine. That’s not the expression, but perhaps it should be, at least when urine is healthy. A normal, healthy urine color tends to be a pale, straw color or a clear yellow.  

“A lot of people don’t realize that when you’re well-hydrated, your urine should be close to running water,” explains urologist Arthur Crowley, MD. “People are confused about that. They’ll say it looks great but it’ll be dark.” 

Urine gets its yellow color from a pigment called urochrome. “It has to do with the way the kidneys break things down,” says Dr. Crowley. In addition, healthy urine has a slight, mild smell. 

But what if your pee has a strong odor, or isn’t a mellow yellow? What if it’s pink? Or red? Though chances are the cause is innocuous, there are times when your body may be telling you something about an underlying medical condition. 

Why does my pee stink? 
Healthy urine odor should be unobtrusive, but there are several reasons why you might notice a stronger odor wafting up from the bowl. Dehydration can cast a distinct aroma if your urine isn’t as diluted as usual, signaling that you need to drink up. Vitamins—namely vitamin B6—and certain foods are other common suspects. “Vitamin B6 has a strong odor, almost like old urine,” says Crowley. “It’s more a nitrogen-type smell.” Garlic can make your pee as stinky as your breath, and asparagus is well known for scenting your urine, giving off a sulfur-like smell. 

Sometimes, though, the smell may be a sign of trouble. People with diabetes often have sweet-smelling urine due to the presence of sugar. A urinary tract infection (UTI) is another condition that brings along a strong smell, “almost like gunpowder,” says Crowley. “The bacteria that causes a UTI will split the urea molecules in urine apart, releasing the smell.” 

(Not so) pretty in pink 
Red or pink are generally not healthy urine colors because they could indicate the presence of blood, but don’t panic just yet. Blueberries and rhubarb can do it. So can beets. Certain medications, such as senna laxatives or even ibuprofen, can cause blood in the urine. Crowley says if a lab analysis reveals no red blood cells in your urine sample, it’s probably something you ate.  

If it’s not your diet, blood in the urine may be a symptom of a UTI, bladder stones and cancer of the kidneys or bladder. It may also be due to long-distance running (joggers’ hematuria) or other strenuous exercise. If you haven’t recently chowed down on veggies that may be behind the color change, see a healthcare provider and have a sample taken. 

Very dark urine 
If you’ve thought all along that dark urine is the norm, think again. Severe dehydration is the best-case scenario for urine that’s amber or orange in color. Fortunately, it’s the most common diagnosis, according to Crowley. The fix is easy enough: Drink more water. If you still notice dark urine, you might need to replenish your electrolytes as well. Sports drinks and Pedialyte can help. 

But if dehydration isn’t causing the dark hue, it could be something more serious. “Cirrhosis of the liver and hepatitis are possibilities,” says Crowley. With liver issues, a pigment called bilirubin is turning the urine dark. “Bilirubin results from the breakdown of old red blood cells and normally can be converted to a water-soluble substance by the liver,” Crowley says. If the liver is damaged, the bilirubin does not get broken down and passes through the bladder as a dark discoloration. 

Medically reviewed in September 2020. Updated in March 2021.

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