A Comprehensive Guide to Urethritis

Female reproductive organ health check
  • Urethritis is a medical condition that develops when the urethra — the tube that carries urine from the bladder to outside the body — becomes inflamed, swollen, and painful.

  • Several factors can trigger this condition, including sexually transmitted infections (STIs), exposure to chemical irritants, and physical injury.

  • Depending on the cause of urethritis, it can be treated using antibiotics, antiviral medications, and lifestyle changes.

  • It’s important to seek treatment if you suspect that you have urethritis, as it can lead to long-term complications if it’s not taken care of properly.

Urethritis is an inflammatory condition that affects nearly four million Americans each year.

Many individuals might not experience noticeable symptoms, which can make treatment difficult.

If you’re concerned about a potential urethritis infection due to symptoms or exposure to risk factors, being proactive is essential to maintain your urinary health.

What is Urethritis?

Urethritis is a medical condition that affects both men and women.

It’s characterized by inflammation of the urethra — the tube that carries urine from the bladder to the outside of the body — and can cause various uncomfortable symptoms.

This inflammation is typically caused by an infection, although it can also result from physical trauma or chemical irritants. We’ll take a closer look at these causes a bit later.

Urethritis symptoms

The symptoms of urethritis can vary depending on the underlying cause, but there are common signs to watch out for. These include:

  • Pain or a burning sensation during urination

  • Urethral discharge

  • Itching or tenderness

  • Increased urge to urinate

  • Blood in the urine or semen

  • Pain during sexual activity

Depending on the cause of your infection, you may also develop other symptoms like ulcers on the genitals and unusual, foul-smelling discharge.

What Can Cause Urethritis?

There are a variety of factors that can trigger urethritis, ranging from mild to moderate. In most cases, these causes can be treated and prevented.

Sexually transmitted infection (STI)

STIs are one of the primary causes of urethritis, especially in sexually active adults. The most common STIs that can cause urethritis are:

  • Chlamydia and gonorrhea: These are the two STIs that are the most well-known causes of urethritis. They are caused by bacteria and can lead to serious reproductive health issues if left untreated.

  • Herpes simplex virus (HSV): HSV type 2 can cause urethritis as a side effect of a genital herpes infection. It can result in painful ulcers in the genital area in addition to inflammation of the urethra.

  • Trichomoniasis: This STI is caused by the Trichomonas vaginalis parasite and can lead to the urethra becoming inflamed. Although trichomoniasis usually affects women, men can also be diagnosed with this STI.

Although rare, STIs like human papillomavirus (HPV) and mycoplasma can also cause urethral inflammation which can progress into urethritis.

Non-infections causes

Urethritis can also be caused by several non-STI-related factors, which can vary widely. These may include:

  • Exposure to chemical irritants, particularly those found in soaps, lubricants, and other forms of contraceptives

  • Physical injury from catheter insertion, surgical procedures, or blunt trauma to the genital area

  • Autoimmune disorders

  • Urinary tract blockage caused by conditions like kidney stones or enlarged prostate

  • Allergic reactions, although rare

  • Using items that may contain irritants, like deodorized tampons

It’s important to consult with your doctor if you contract urethritis from a non-STI-related cause to help determine which lifestyle adjustments you can make to avoid it.

Key Point: Is Urethritis Contagious?

Urethritis itself isn’t contagious. However, if your urethritis is caused by an STI, the infection can be transmitted to sexual partners.

It’s essential to seek treatment for any STI-related conditions and avoid sexual activity until your infection has been treated properly.

If your urethritis results from a non-infectious cause, your sexual partner won’t be at risk of also developing urethritis.

How is Urethritis Diagnosed?

Diagnosing urethritis typically involves a combination of clinical evaluation and specific tests to identify the underlying cause of your symptoms.

Your doctor will begin by assessing your medical history and performing a physical consultation.

During the consultation, healthcare providers will inquire about your symptoms, sexual history, and any known exposures to potential risk factors.

The physical examination may include inspecting the genital area for signs of discharge, redness, or other abnormalities to determine the severity of your infection.

If necessary, your doctor may need to conduct further testing and will collect samples such as urine, blood, or a urethral swab.

These samples are sent to a laboratory to test for the presence of bacteria or parasites that may indicate that you have an STI.

Depending on the results of your physical examination and tests, your doctor will make a diagnosis and recommend appropriate treatment options.

How is Urethritis Treated?

Treating urethritis involves addressing the underlying cause of the inflammation, managing symptoms, and preventing complications.

The specific treatment approach your doctor will recommend will also vary depending on whether the urethritis is caused by an infection or other factors.

Treating infectious causes of urethritis may involve:

  • Taking antibiotics: For urethritis caused by bacterial infections like chlamydia or gonorrhea, antibiotics are the main treatment method. The type of antibiotic prescribed depends on the specific bacteria responsible for the infection. It's crucial to complete the entire course of antibiotics, even if symptoms improve before the medication is finished.

  • Using antiviral medication: If the urethritis is due to a viral infection such as HSV, antiviral medications may be prescribed. These drugs help reduce the severity and frequency of outbreaks, while reducing symptoms.

  • Ensuring your partner gets treated: Sexual partners should also be treated to prevent reinfection and to stop the spread of STIs. Abstaining from sexual intercourse until treatment is complete may also be recommended.

If your urethritis is caused by non-STI-related factors, treatment may involve:

  • Avoiding irritants: If the urethritis is caused by chemical irritants, the first step is to identify and avoid the offending substance. This might involve changing personal care products or avoiding certain medications.

  • Managing symptoms: Over the counter (OTC) pain relief can help manage discomfort. Drinking plenty of water can also help dilute urine and prevent recurrent infections.

  • Physical therapy: In cases where physical trauma has caused urethritis, physical therapy may be recommended to aid recovery.

Whichever form of treatment you’re receiving, it’s important to keep an eye on your symptoms. If they don’t improve or become worse, consult your doctor to discuss alternative treatment options.

How long does treatment take to work?

Depending on the cause of urethritis, your symptoms may start to improve within a few days to a week.

If your infection is caused by chemical or physical factors, it may take a bit longer to recover fully.

Treatment should work within a few days, but it can take several weeks for your symptoms to disappear completely.

Potential side effects and complications

Using medications to treat urethritis can cause various side effects. These may include:

  • Nausea

  • Diarrhea

  • Allergic reactions

  • Headaches

In rare cases, these medications may also lead to changes in kidney function, which can cause permanent damage if left untreated.

If a urethritis infection isn’t treated properly, it can also lead to health complications like:

  • Chronic infections

  • Conditions like pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)

  • Spread of the infections to other parts of the body

  • Fertility issues, especially in women

  • Frequent urinary tract infections

Scheduling regular check-ups with your doctor — especially if you’re still receiving treatment — is essential for monitoring your infection for signs of adverse reactions and complications.

Can You Prevent Urethritis?

Preventing urethritis involves implementing lifestyle adjustments, especially when it comes to non-infectious causes. Common steps you can take include:

  • Practicing safe sex with barrier methods like condoms

  • Getting screened for STIs and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) regularly

  • Avoiding chemical irritants

  • Urinating after sex to flush out any bacteria

  • Managing chronic conditions

  • Strengthening your immune system

While not all cases of urethritis can be prevented, implementing these changes can help reduce your risk of contracting an infection.

You can also speak to your doctor about specific lifestyle considerations you can make to keep yourself healthy.

Should You See a Doctor About Urethritis?

A urethritis infection typically requires a professional diagnosis from a healthcare provider.

This helps to detect infections early on, which is essential to ensure effective treatment and prevent further complications.

Your doctor can also help you determine the root cause of your urethritis and recommend steps you can take to avoid these factors in the future.

In addition to providing guidance on treatment and prevention methods, your doctor can also provide valuable advice on maintaining your overall sexual health and avoiding future infections.

Where Can You Learn More About Urethritis and Similar Conditions?

If you’re concerned about your symptoms or want to know more about treating urethritis, LifeMD is here to help.

Licensed medical professionals can assist you with information and provide guidance on managing a urethritis infection while avoiding further complications — all from the comfort of your home.

Make an appointment today to get started.

Dr. Anthony Puopolo

Dr. Puopolo holds a B.A. in Biology from Tufts University, M.A. in Biology from Boston University, and Doctor of Medicine from the Boston University School of Medicine. He also completed a Family Medicine and Psychiatry residency program in the U.S. Army.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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