Urine may smell like popcorn for several different reasons, most of which are no cause for concern.

The common causes of a popcorn smell include diabetes, pregnancy, and a diet high in protein.

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This article will discuss some of the reasons a person’s urine may smell like popcorn and explain when to see a doctor about changes in urine odor.

Causes and symptoms

Popcorn in a bowl representing urine smelling like popcorn.
Popcorn-smelling urine is a not uncommon.

People may worry if their urine smells like popcorn, but this is not uncommon. Most cases are temporary, but if the smell persists, it is worth seeing a doctor to determine the underlying cause.

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Urine consists mainly of water. When it looks or smells different than usual, it is because of waste products that come from the body. This means that the look and smell of urine can tell a lot about a person’s health.

Common reasons for urine to smell like popcorn include:

Diabetes

People with diabetes may have a very high level of ketones in their bloodstream. When the body excretes these in urine, they can make the urine smell like popcorn. A high level of ketones in the urine or blood is called ketosis.

The body will produce ketones when it does not have enough sugar or glucose for fuel. This might happen overnight or when a person is fasting.

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Having a small number of ketones in the bloodstream is normal, especially for people who exercise a lot or do other activities that encourage the body to burn fat. However, if a person with diabetes does not control their condition, a dangerously high level of ketones can build in their blood.

This is called ketoacidosis, and it is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention. For some people, it is the first sign that they have diabetes.

In most cases, people with ketoacidosis have sweet, strong-smelling urine. Ketoacidosis can develop within 24 hours of having consistently high blood glucose levels, or hyperglycemia.

It is possible to measure urinary ketones using ketone strips, which are available in drugstores or online.

Additional signs and symptoms of ketoacidosis include:

  • increased urination
  • dehydration
  • excessive, unquenchable thirst
  • sweet-smelling, or “fruity” breath
  • rapid heartbeat
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • confusion and disorientation
  • hyperventilating or Kussmaul breathing, which is deep, labored breathing
  • fainting

Ketoacidosis constitutes a medical emergency, so if anyone suspects this condition, they should call the emergency services immediately.

Other than diabetes, the most common causes of ketoacidosis are starvation and drinking a lot of alcohol.

Eating a lot of protein

Another way to cause ketosis is by eating a lot of protein. When a person eats a lot of protein instead of carbohydrates, their body uses protein and stored fat for energy instead of using carbohydrates as it would usually do. This can cause the ketone level in the blood to rise. When these ketones leave the body in the urine, it may smell sweet or similar to popcorn.

Pregnancy

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Pregnancy may cause changes to a person’s sense of smell.

During pregnancy, urine may change for a few reasons, including:

  • Altered sense of smell. Because a person’s sense of smell changes slightly during pregnancy, everyday scents may smell different than usual.
  • Hormonal changes. In the very early stages of pregnancy, increased levels of the hormone human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) circulate in the blood, which can cause urine to smell different or more strongly.
  • Gestational diabetes. According to Diabetes.co.uk, around 1 in 20 pregnant women develop a form of temporary diabetes known as gestational diabetes. Ketoacidosis is a serious but rare complication in women with gestational diabetes.

Dehydration

When someone is dehydrated, they excrete less water in the urine, meaning their urine is more concentrated, darker in color, and smells much stronger than usual. If the waste products in urine have a popcorn smell, the urine may also smell like popcorn since it is more concentrated.

Aside from strong-smelling urine, additional symptoms of dehydration include:

When to see a doctor

People usually do not need to worry if their urine smells a bit different than usual for a day or two.

However, if they notice that their urine smells sweet like popcorn for several days, they should see a doctor to determine the underlying cause.

In particular, people with diabetes and pregnant women should talk with a doctor about any changes in the smell of their urine, especially if it is strong and sweet smelling.

Outlook

Popcorn-scented urine typically occurs as a result of diet or dehydration and is no cause for concern.

However, if the smell lasts longer than a few days with diet or fluid intake unlikely to be the cause, it is best to visit a doctor. Similarly, pregnant woman and people with diabetes or other symptoms of diabetes should speak to a doctor if they notice the smell. In these circumstances, popcorn-scented urine may be a sign of a serious medical issue.