Microscopic examination of urine is also called as the “liquid biopsy of the urinary tract”.
Urine consists of various microscopic, insoluble, solid elements in suspension. These elements are classified as organized or unorganized. Organized substances include red blood cells, white blood cells, epithelial cells, casts, bacteria, and parasites
. The unorganized substances are crystalline and amorphous material. These elements are suspended in urine and on standing they settle down and sediment at the bottom of the container; therefore they are known as urinary deposits or urinary sediments. Examination of urinary deposit is helpful in diagnosis of urinary tract diseases as shown in Table 825.1.
Table 825.1 Urinary findings in renal diseases
|2. Acute glomerulonephritis
||Red cell, granular
||Smoky urine or hematuria
|3. Nephrotic syndrome
||Fatty, hyaline, Waxy, epithelial
||Oval fat bodies, lipiduria
|4. Acute pyelonephritis
||WBC clumps, bacteria, nitrite test
|HPF: High power field; LPF: Low power field; RBCs: Red blood cells; WBCs: White blood cells.
Different types of urinary sediments are shown in Figure 825.1. The major aim of microscopic examination of urine is to identify different types of cellular elements and casts. Most crystals have little clinical significance.
Figure 825.1 Different types of urinary sediment
The cellular elements are best preserved in acid
, hypertonic urine; they deteriorate rapidly in alkaline, hypotonic solution. A mid-stream, freshly voided, first morning specimen is preferred since it is the most concentrated. The specimen should be examined within 2 hours of voiding because cells and casts degenerate upon standing at room temperature. If preservative is required, then 1 crystal of thymol or 1 drop of formalin (40%) is added to about 10 ml of urine.
Method: A well-mixed sample of urine (12 ml) is centrifuged in a centrifuge tube for 5 minutes at 1500 rpm and supernatant is poured off. The tube is tapped at the bottom to resuspend the sediment (in 0.5 ml of urine). A drop of this is placed on a glass slide and covered with a cover slip (Figure 825.2). The slide is examined immediately under the microscope using first the low power and then the high power objective. The condenser should be lowered to better visualize the elements by reducing the illumination.
Figure 825.2 Preparation of urine sediment for microscopic examination
Cellular elements in urine are shown in Figure 825.3.
Figure 825.3 Cells in urine (1) Isomorphic red blood cells, (2) Crenated red cells, (3) Swollen red cells, (4) Dysmorphic red cells, (5) White blood cells (pus cells), (6) Squamous epithelial cell, (7) Transitional epithelial cells, (8) Renal tubular epithelial cells, (9) Oval fat bodies, (10) Maltese cross pattern of oval fat bodies, and (11) spermatozoa
Red Blood Cells
Normally there are no or an occasional red blood cell in urine. In a fresh urine sample, red cells appear as small, smooth, yellowish, anucleate biconcave disks about 7 μ in diameter (called as isomorphic red cells). However, red cells may appear swollen (thin discs of greater diameter, 9-10 μ) in dilute or hypotonic urine, or may appear crenated (smaller diameter with spikey surface) in hypertonic urine. In glomerulonephritis, red cells are typically described as being dysmorphic (i.e. markedly variable in size and shape). They result from passage of red cells through the damaged glomeruli. Presence of > 80% of dysmorphic red cells is strongly suggestive of glomerular pathology.
The quantity of red cells can be reported as number of red cells per high power field.
Causes of hematuria have been listed earlier.
White Blood Cells (Pus Cells)
White blood cells are spherical, 10-15 μ in size, granular in appearance in which nuclei may be visible. Degenerated white cells are distorted, smaller, and have fewer granules. Clumps of numerous white cells are seen in infections
. Presence of many white cells in urine is called as pyuria. In hypotonic urine white cells are swollen and the granules are highly refractile and show Brownian movement; such cells are called as glitter cells; large numbers are indicative of injury to urinary tract.
Normally 0-2 white cells may be seen per high power field. Pus cells greater than 10/HPF or presence of clumps is suggestive of urinary tract infection.
Increased numbers of white cells occur in fever, pyelonephritis, lower urinary tract infection, tubulointerstitial nephritis, and renal transplant rejection.
In urinary tract infection, following are usually seen in combination:
- Clumps of pus cells or pus cells >10/HPF
- Positive nitrite test
Simultaneous presence of white cells and white cell casts indicates presence of renal infection (pyelonephritis).
(>1% of urinary leucocytes) are a characteristic feature of acute interstitial nephritis due to drug reaction (better appreciated with a Wright’s stain).
Renal Tubular Epithelial Cells
Presence of renal tubular epithelial cells is a significant finding. Increased numbers are found in conditions causing tubular damage like acute tubular necrosis, pyelonephritis, viral infection of kidney, allograft rejection, and salicylate or heavy metal poisoning.
These cells are small (about the same size or slightly larger than white blood cell), polyhedral, columnar, or oval, and have granular cytoplasm
. A single, large, refractile, eccentric nucleus
is often seen.
Renal tubular epithelial cells are difficult to distinguish from pus cells in unstained preparations.
Squamous Epithelial Cells
Squamous epithelial cells line the lower urethra
and vagina. They are best seen under low power objective (×10). Presence of large numbers of squamous cells in urine indicates contamination of urine with vaginal fluid. These are large cells, rectangular in shape, flat with abundant cytoplasm and a small, central nucleus.
Transitional Epithelial Cells
Transitional cells line renal pelvis, ureters, urinary bladder, and upper urethra. These cells are large, and diamond- or pear-shaped (caudate cells). Large numbers or sheets of these cells in urine occur after catheterization and in transitional cell carcinoma.
Oval Fat Bodies
These are degenerated renal tubular epithelial cells filled with highly refractile lipid (cholesterol) droplets. Under polarized light, they show a characteristic “Maltese cross” pattern. They can be stained with a fat stain such as Sudan III or Oil Red O. They are seen in nephrotic syndrome
in which there is lipiduria.
They may sometimes be seen in urine of men.
Telescoped urinary sediment:
This refers to urinary sediment consisting of red blood cells, white blood cells, oval fat bodies, and all types of casts in roughly equal proportion. It occurs in lupus nephritis, malignant
hypertension, rapidly proliferative glomerulonephritis, and diabetic glomerulosclerosis.
Organisms detectable in urine are shown in Figure 825.4.
Figure 825.4 Organisms in urine: (A) Bacteria, (B) Yeasts, (C) Trichomonas, and (D) Egg of Schistosoma haematobium
Bacteria in urine can be detected by microscopic examination, reagent
strip tests for significant bacteriuria (nitrite test, leucocyte esterase test), and culture
Significant bacteriuria exists when there are >105 bacterial colony forming units/ml of urine in a cleancatch midstream sample, >104 colony forming units/ml of urine in catheterized sample, and >103 colonyforming units/ml of urine in a suprapubic aspiration sample.
- Microscopic examination: In a wet preparation, presence of bacteria should be reported only when urine is fresh. Bacteria occur in combination with pus cells. Gram’s-stained smear of uncentrifuged urine showing 1 or more bacteria per oil-immersion field suggests presence of > 105 bacterial colony forming units/ml of urine. If many squamous cells are present, then urine is probably contaminated with vaginal flora. Also, presence of only bacteria without pus cells indicates contamination with vaginal or skin flora.
- Chemical or reagent strip tests for significant bacteriuria: These are given earlier.
- Culture: On culture, a colony count of >105/ml is strongly suggestive of urinary tract infection, even in asymptomatic females. Positive culture is followed by sensitivity test. Most infections are due to Gram-negative enteric bacteria, particularly Escherichia coli.
If three or more species of bacteria are identified on culture, it almost always indicates contamination by vaginal flora.
Negative culture in the presence of pyuria (‘sterile’ pyuria) occurs with prior antibiotic therapy, renal tuberculosis, prostatitis
, renal calculi, catheterization, fever in children (irrespective of cause), female genital tract infection, and non-specific urethritis in males.
Yeast Cells (Candida)
These are round or oval structures of approximately the same size as red blood cells. In contrast to red cells, they show budding, are oval and more refractile, and are not soluble in 2% acetic acid.
Presence of Candida
in urine may suggest immunocompromised
state, vaginal candidiasis, or diabetes mellitus. Usually pyuria is present if there is infection by Candida
may also be a contaminant in the sample and therefore urine sample must be examined in a fresh state.
These are motile organisms with pear shape, undulating membrane on one side, and four flagellae. They cause vaginitis in females and are thus contaminants in urine. They are easily detected in fresh urine due to their motility.
Eggs of Schistosoma haematobium
Infection by this organism is prevalent in Egypt.
They may be seen in urine in chyluria due to rupture of a urogenital lymphatic vessel.
are cylindrical, cigar-shaped microscopic structures that form in distal renal tubules
and collecting ducts. They take the shape and diameter of the lumina (molds or ‘casts’) of the renal tubules. They have parallel sides and rounded ends. Their length and width may be variable. Casts are basically composed of a precipitate of a protein
that is secreted by tubules (Tamm-Horsfall protein). Since casts form only in renal tubules their presence is indicative of disease of the renal parenchyma. Although there are several types of casts, all urine casts are basically hyaline; various types of casts are formed when different elements get deposited on the hyaline material (Figure 825.5). Casts are best seen under low power objective (×10) with condenser lowered down to reduce the illumination.
Figure 825.5 Genesis of casts in urine. All cellular casts degenerate to granular and waxy casts
Casts are the only elements in the urinary sediment that are specifically of renal origin.
Casts (Figure 825.6) are of two main types:
- Noncellular: Hyaline, granular, waxy, fatty
- Cellular: Red blood cell, white blood cell, renal tubular epithelial cell.
Hyaline and granular casts may appear in normal or diseased states. All other casts are found in kidney diseases.
Figure 825.6 Urinary casts: (A) Hyaline cast, (B) Granular cast, (C) Waxy cast, (D) Fatty cast, (E) Red cell cast, (F) White cell cast, and (G) Epithelial cast
Hyaline casts: These are the most common type of casts in urine and are homogenous, colorless, transparent, and refractile. They are cylindrical with parallel sides and blunt, rounded ends and low refractive index. Presence of occasional hyaline cast is considered as normal. Their presence in increased numbers (“cylinduria”) is abnormal. They are composed primarily of Tamm-Horsfall protein. They occur transiently after strenuous muscle exercise in healthy persons and during fever. Increased numbers are found in conditions causing glomerular proteinuria.
Granular casts: Presence of degenerated cellular debris in a cast makes it granular in appearance. These are cylindrical structures with coarse or fine granules (which represent degenerated renal tubular epithelial cells) embedded in Tamm-Horsfall protein matrix. They are seen after strenuous muscle exercise and in fever, acute glomerulonephritis, and pyelonephritis.
These are the most easily recognized of all casts. They form when hyaline casts remain in renal tubules for long time (prolonged stasis). They have homogenous, smooth glassy appearance, cracked or serrated margins and irregular broken-off ends. The ends are straight and sharp and not rounded as in other casts. They are light yellow in color. They are most commonly seen in end-stage
Fatty casts: These are cylindrical structures filled with highly refractile fat globules (triglycerides and cholesterol esters) in Tamm-Horsfall protein matrix. They are seen in nephrotic syndrome.
Broad casts form in dilated distal tubules and are seen in chronic
renal failure and severe renal tubular obstruction. Both waxy and broad casts are associated with poor prognosis
To be called as cellular, casts should contain at least three cells in the matrix. Cellular casts are named according to the type of cells entrapped in the matrix.
Red cell casts:
These are cylindrical structures with red cells in Tamm-Horsfall protein matrix. They may appear brown in color due to hemoglobin pigmentation. These have greater diagnostic importance than any other cast. If present, they help to differentiate
hematuria due to glomerular disease from hematuria due to other causes. RBC casts usually denote glomerular pathology e.g. acute glomerulonephritis.
White cell casts: These are cylindrical structures with white blood cells embedded in Tamm-Horsfall protein matrix. Leucocytes usually enter into tubules from the interstitium and therefore presence of leucocyte casts indicates tubulointerstitial disease like pyelonephritis.
Renal tubular epithelial cell casts: These are composed of renal tubular epithelial cells that have been sloughed off. They are seen in acute tubular necrosis, viral renal disease, heavy metal poisoning, and acute allograft rejection. Even an occasional renal tubular cast is a significant finding.
Crystals are refractile structures with a definite geometric shape due to orderly 3-dimensional arrangement of its atoms and molecules. Amorphous material (or deposit) has no definite shape and is commonly seen in the form of granular aggregates or clumps.
Crystals in urine (Figure 825.7) can be divided into two main types: (1) Normal (seen in normal urinary sediment), and (2) Abnormal (seen in diseased states).
Figure 825.7 Crystals in urine. (A) Normal crystals: (1) Calcium oxalate, (2) Triple phosphates, (3) Uric acid, (4) Amorphous phosphates, (5) Amorphous urates, (6) Ammonium urate. (B) Abnormal crystals: (1) Cysteine, (2) Cholesterol, (3) Bilirubin, (4) Tyrosine, (5) Sulfonamide, and (6) Leucine
However, crystals found in normal urine can also be seen in some diseases in increased numbers.
Most crystals have no clinical importance (particularly phosphates, urates, and oxalates). Crystals can be identified in urine by their morphology. However, before reporting presence of any abnormal crystals, it is necessary to confirm them by chemical tests.
Crystals present in acid urine:
- Uric acid crystals: These are variable in shape (diamond, rosette, plates), and yellow or red-brown in color (due to urinary pigment). They are soluble in alkali, and insoluble in acid. Increased numbers are found in gout and leukemia. Flat hexagonal uric acid crystals may be mistaken for cysteine crystals that also form in acid urine.
- Calcium oxalate crystals: These are colorless, refractile, and envelope-shaped. Sometimes dumbbell-shaped or peanut-like forms are seen. They are soluble in dilute hydrochloric acid. Ingestion of certain foods like tomatoes, spinach, cabbage, asparagus, and rhubarb causes increase in their numbers. Their increased number in fresh urine (oxaluria) may also suggest oxalate stones. A large number are seen in ethylene glycol poisoning.
- Amorphous urates: These are urate salts of potassium, magnesium, or calcium in acid urine. They are usually yellow, fine granules in compact masses. They are soluble in alkali or saline at 60°C.
Crystals present in alkaline urine:
- Calcium carbonate crystals: These are small, colorless, and grouped in pairs. They are soluble in acetic acid and give off bubbles of gas when they dissolve.
- Phosphates: Phosphates may occur as crystals (triple phosphates, calcium hydrogen phosphate), or as amorphous deposits.
• Phosphate crystals
Triple phosphates (ammonium magnesium phosphate): They are colorless, shiny, 3-6 sided prisms with oblique surfaces at the ends (“coffinlids”), or may have a feathery fern-like appearance.
Calcium hydrogen phosphate (stellar phosphate): These are colorless, and of variable shape (starshaped, plates or prisms).
• Amorphous phosphates: These occur as colorless small granules, often dispersed.
All phosphates are soluble in dilute acetic acid.
- Ammonium urate crystals: These occur as cactus-like (covered with spines) and called as ‘thornapple’ crystals. They are yellow-brown and soluble in acetic acid at 60°C.
They are rare, but result from a pathological process.
These occur in acid pH
, often in large amounts. Abnormal crystals should not be reported on microscopy alone; additional chemical tests are done for confirmation.
- Cysteine crystals: These are colorless, clear, hexagonal (having 6 sides), very refractile plates in acid urine. They often occur in layers. They are soluble in 30% hydrochloric acid. They are seen in cysteinuria, an inborn error of metabolism. Cysteine crystals are often associated with formation of cysteine stones.
- Cholesterol crystals: These are colorless, refractile, flat rectangular plates with notched (missing) corners, and appear stacked in a stair-step arrangement. They are soluble in ether, chloroform, or alcohol. They are seen in lipiduria e.g. nephrotic syndrome and hypercholesterolemia. They can be positively identified by polarizing microscope.
- Bilirubin crystals: These are small (5 μ), brown crystals of variable shape (square, bead-like, or fine needles). Their presence can be confirmed by doing reagent strip or chemical test for bilirubin. These crystals are soluble in strong acid or alkali. They are seen in severe obstructive liver disease.
- Leucine crystals: These are refractile, yellow or brown, spheres with radial or concentric striations. They are soluble in alkali. They are usually found in urine along with tyrosine in severe liver disease (cirrhosis).
- Tyrosine crystals: They appear as clusters of fine, delicate, colorless or yellow needles and are seen in liver disease and tyrosinemia (an inborn error of metabolism). They dissolve in alkali.
- Sulfonamide crystals: They are variably shaped crystals, but usually appear as sheaves of needles. They occur following sulfonamide therapy. They are soluble in acetone.