It’s really easy to totally ignore your pee if everything is running according to plan (i.e., a light color, steady stream, and faint smell).
But when something is very noticeably off—like if it reeks of, well, urine, or if it looks super-yellow—it definitely gets your wheels turning; and that’s a good thing because your pee can actually tell you a whole lot about your overall health.
If your pee looks like the color of light beer, for example, it could mean you definitely need to drink more water; and if it’s cloudy, it might signal that you’ve got a bacterial infection going on…but what if it looks foamy? Something’s definitely up right? Here’s what you need to know if your pee looks like it just came out of a steamer.
1. You might just have a super-fast urine stream.
Really, though. ““Some amount of bubbles in the urine is normal and this can be affected by how fast the urinary stream is and how far the urine has to travel before hitting the toilet,” says Yaakov Liss, M.D., a nephrologist at CareMount Medical in New York.
(FYI: a normal urinary stream flows at about 15 milliliters per second—not necessarily helpful information, but still interesting!) So honestly, if your pee looks a bit bubblier than usual, it might just be coming out a little faster, says Liss.
2. Your kidneys aren’t working like they should.
Your kidneys work to filter out blood and substances in your urine—protein, specifically—so when your pee looks foamy it could be due to excess protein, which signals something may be off with your kidneys.
“Under normal circumstances, the kidney filters do not permit protein molecules from the blood to pass through and end up in the urine,” Liss says. “An increase of protein in the urine is generally evidence of a damaged and leaky kidney filter.”
Often, though, foamy urine is just one sign of a damaged kidney—other signs include swelling due to fluid retention or weight gain; if you’re experiencing any of those symptoms, it’s time to see a doctor.
3. You’re dehydrated.
Water is one of the substances found in urine (duh), so when you’re not drinking enough, it can make your urine foamy.
“The more dehydrated someone is the more concentrated their urine will be [as their body tries to] conserve water,” explains Liss. This results in foaminess because more substances are excreted in a smaller volume of water. If you spot foamy urine, a good first step is increasing your hydration to see if that helps.
4. You have diabetes or hypertension.
Protein in the urine is at play here once again. Both conditions—diabetes, which affects the body’s insulin levels; and hypertension (a.k.a. high blood pressure)—can affect the blood flow to the kidneys, impairing their function.
“This increased pressure [causes] increased stress, which leads to damage and protein in the urine,” says Liss, which, again, can result in foaminess.
Again, both diabetes and hypertension have other symptoms, too—diabetes often comes with increased urination and thirst; hypertension can manifest as chest pain or shortness of breath—so if you’re experiencing those symptoms along with foamy urine, let your doc know.
5. You have a chronic infection.
Chronic infections—like hepatitis or HIV—can also cause excess protein in your urine, says Liss. Some infections can directly attack the kidney filters; others cause inflammation that can affect your kidney’s functioning.
If you’ve been battling a chronic illness and your urine looks soapy or sudsy, check with your doctor—a simply urine test can check for the presence of too much protein in the urine, and your doc can figure out what to do from there.
6. You’re in the habit of taking pain meds.
If you’ve been taking over-the-counter painkillers for a while and your urine is looking foamier than usual, those pills could be to blame. Liss says that NSAIDs in particular (think: Advil, Motrin, and Aleve) can cause you to have high levels of protein in your urine. Even worse: Sometimes those pain meds can result in an allergic reaction that causes inflammation in your kidneys.
It’s not a great idea to take any OTC painkillers for an extended period of time without medical supervision, so if you’ve been on a steady regimen of Motrin to combat some kind of ache, it’s probably smart to check in with your doctor to make a long-term plan for pain management.
7. You have an autoimmune disease.
Autoimmune conditions also put stress and strain on the kidneys, potentially causing enough damage to disrupt the filtering process.
“Similar to [chronic viral infections], autoimmune conditions can lead to protein in the urine via the patient’s own immune system mistakenly attacking the patient’s own kidney filters,” says Liss, who notes that these conditions can be exclusive to the kidneys or systemic, like lupus.
Symptoms of autoimmune conditions vary, but have several things in common (fatigue, joint pain, and recurring fever, for example), so if you see foamy urine and you haven’t felt like yourself for a while, it’s worth checking with your doctor.
8. You have a type of blood cancer.
Multiple myeloma, specifically—a type of cancer that forms in the plasma cells of your blood—can lead to extra protein in the urine (and cause it to look foamy). According to Liss, antibodies that are produced as a result of the cancer “can be highly toxic to the kidney filters and lead to protein in the urine.”
But honestly, this is rare: The American Cancer Society notes that multiple myeloma is a relatively uncommon cancer most prevalent in people over 65 and is twice as common in African Americans (though no one knows why). It’s probably not the first thing you should jump to if you have foamy urine, but depending on your age and race it could be a possibility.
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