Urinalysis: a comprehensive review

Author: Jeff A. Simerville, John J. Pahira
Date: March 15, 2005

A complete urinalysis includes physical, chemical, and microscopic examinations. Midstream clean collection is acceptable in most situations, but the specimen should be examined within two hours of collection. Cloudy urine often is a result of precipitated phosphate crystals in alkaline urine, but pyuria also can be the cause. A strong odor may be the result of a concentrated specimen rather than a urinary tract infection. Dipstick urinalysis is convenient, but false-positive and false-negative results can occur. Specific gravity provides a reliable assessment of the patient's hydration status. Microhematuria has a range of causes, from benign to life threatening. Glomerular, renal, and urologic causes of microhematuria often can be differentiated by other elements of the urinalysis. Although transient proteinuria typically is a benign condition, persistent proteinuria requires further work-up. Uncomplicated urinary tract infections diagnosed by positive leukocyte esterase and nitrite tests can be treated without culture. (Am Fam Physician 2005;71:1153-62. Copyright[c] 2005 American Academy of Family Physicians.)


Urinalysis is invaluable in the diagnosis of urologic conditions such as calculi, urinary tract infection (UTI), and malignancy. It also can alert the physician to the presence of systemic disease affecting the kidneys. Although urinalysis is not recommended as a routine screening tool except in women who may be pregnant, physicians should know how to interpret urinalysis results correctly. This article reviews the correct method for performing urinalysis and the differential diagnosis for several abnormal results.

Specimen Collection

A midstream clean-catch technique usually is adequate in men and women. Although prior cleansing of the external genitalia often is recommended in women, it has no proven benefit. In fact, a recent study (1) found that contamination rates were similar in specimens obtained with and without prior cleansing (32 versus 29 percent). Urine must be refrigerated if it cannot be examined promptly; delays of more than two hours between collection and examination often cause unreliable results. (2)

Physical Properties: Color and Odor

Foods, medications, metabolic products, and infection can cause abnormal urine colors (Table 1). (3) Cloudy urine often is a result of precipitated phosphate crystals in alkaline urine, but pyuria also can be the cause.


The normal odor of urine is described as urinoid; this odor can be strong in concentrated specimens but does not imply infection. Diabetic ketoacidosis can cause urine to have a fruity or sweet odor, and alkaline fermentation can cause an ammoniacal odor after prolonged bladder retention. Persons with UTIs often have urine with a pungent odor. Other causes of abnormal odors include gastrointestinal-bladder fistulas (associated with a fecal smell), cystine decomposition (associated with a sulfuric smell), and medications and diet (e.g., asparagus).

Dipstick Urinalysis

False-positive and false-negative results are not unusual in dipstick urinalysis (Table 2). The accuracy of this test in detecting microscopic hematuria, significant proteinuria, and UTI is summarized in Table 13. (4-13)


Urinary specific gravity (USG) correlates with urine osmolality and gives important insight into the patient's hydration status. It also reflects the concentrating ability of the kidneys. Normal USG can range from 1.003 to 1.030; a value of less than 1.010 indicates relative hydration, and a value greater than 1.020 indicates relative dehydration. (14) Increased USG is associated with glycosuria and the syndrome of inappropriate antidiuretic hormone; decreased USG is associated with diuretic use, diabetes insipidus, adrenal insufficiency, aldosteronism, and impaired renal function. (14) In patients with intrinsic renal insufficiency, USG is fixed at 1.010--the specific gravity of the glomerular filtrate.


Urinary pH can range from 4.5 to 8 but normally is slightly acidic (i.e., 5.5 to 6.5) because of metabolic activity. Ingestion of proteins and acidic fruits (e.g., cranberries) can cause acidic urine, and diets high in citrate can cause alkaline urine. (15-17) Urinary pH generally reflects the serum pH, except in patients with renal tubular acidosis (RTA). The inability to acidify urine to a pH of less than 5.5 despite an overnight fast and administration of an acid load is the hallmark of RTA. In type I (distal) RTA, the serum is acidic but the urine is alkaline, secondary to an inability to secrete protons into the urine. Type II (proximal) RTA is characterized by an inability to reabsorb bicarbonate. This situation initially results in alkaline urine, but as the filtered load of bicarbonate decreases, the urine becomes more acidic.

Determination of urinary pH is useful in the diagnosis and management of UTIs and calculi. Alkaline urine in a patient with a UTI suggests the presence of a urea-splitting organism, which may be associated with magnesium-ammonium phosphate crystals and can form staghorn calculi. Uric acid calculi are associated with acidic urine.


According to the American Urological Association, the presence of three or more red blood cells (RBCs) per high-powered field (HPF) in two of three urine samples is the generally accepted definition of hematuria.18-20 The dipstick test for blood detects the peroxidase activity of erythrocytes. However, myoglobin and hemoglobin also will catalyze this reaction, so a positive test result may indicate hematuria, myoglobinuria, or hemoglobin-uria. Visualization of intact erythrocytes on microscopic examination of the urinary sediment can distinguish hematuria from other conditions. Microscopic examination also may detect RBC casts or dysmorphic RBCs. Hematuria is divided into glomerular, renal (i.e., nonglomerular), and urologic etiologies (Table 4). (21)


Glomerular Hematuria. Glomerular hematuria typically is associated with significant proteinuria, erythrocyte casts, and dysmorphic RBCs. However, 20 percent of patients with biopsy-proven glomerulonephritis present with hematuria alone. (22) IgA nephropathy (i.e., Berger's disease) is the most common cause of glomerular hematuria.

Renal (Nonglomerular) Hematuria. Nonglomerular hematuria is secondary to tubulointerstitial, renovascular, or metabolic disorders. Like glomerular hematuria, it often is associated with significant proteinuria; however, there are no associated dysmorphic RBCs or erythrocyte casts. Further evaluation of patients with glomerular and nonglomerular hematuria should include determination of renal function and 24-hour urinary protein or spot urinary protein-creatinine ratio.

Urologic Hematuria. Urologic causes of hematuria include tumors, calculi, and infections. Urologic hematuria is distinguished from other etiologies by the absence of proteinuria, dysmorphic RBCs, and erythrocyte casts. Even significant hematuria will not elevate the protein concentration to the 2+ to 3+ range on the dipstick test. (23) Up to 20 percent of patients with gross hematuria have urinary tract malignancy; a full work-up with cystoscopy and upper-tract imaging is indicated in patients with this condition. (24) In patients with asymptomatic microscopic hematuria (without proteinuria or pyuria), 5 to 22 percent have serious urologic disease, and 0.5 to 5 percent have a genitourinary malignancy. (25-29)

Exercise-induced hematuria is a relatively common, benign condition that often is associated with long-distance running. Results of repeat urinalysis after 48 to 72 hours should be negative in patients with this condition. (30)


In healthy persons, the glomerular capillary wall is permeable only to substances with a molecular weight of less than 20,000 Daltons. Once filtered, low-molecular-weight proteins are reabsorbed and metabolized by the proximal tubule cells. Normal urinary proteins include albumin, serum globulins, and proteins secreted by the nephron. Proteinuria is defined as urinary protein excretion of more than 150 mg per day (10 to 20 mg per dL) and is the hallmark of renal disease. Microal-buminuria is defined as the excretion of 30 to 150 mg of protein per day and is a sign of early renal disease, particularly in diabetic patients.


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JEFF A. SIMERVILLE, M.D., WILLIAM C. MAXTED, M.D., and JOHN J. PAHIRA, M.D. Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington, D.C.

JEFF A. SIMERVILLE, M.D., is a fifth-year resident in urology at Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, D.C. He received his medical degree from Georgetown University School of Medicine.

WILLIAM C. MAXTED, M.D., is professor of urology at Georgetown University School of Medicine, where he received his medical degree and completed a residency in urology.

JOHN J. PAHIRA, M.D., is professor of urology at Georgetown University School of Medicine. He received his medical degree from Pennsylvania State University Milton S. Hershey Medical Center College of Medicine, Hershey, and a residency in urology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Address correspondence to Jeff A. Simerville, M.D., 6641 Wakefield Dr., #411, Alexandria, VA 22307 (e-mail: jsimerville@cox.net). Reprints are not available from the authors.

The authors indicate that they do not have any conflicts of interest. Sources of funding: none reported.

Figures 1 through 4 reprinted from the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center Department of Laboratory Medicine, Bethesda, Md.

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