What is Urethritis? - Definition, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Sarah Phenix
In this lesson, we will explore the definition of urethritis as well as the symptoms, causes, and treatment of this uncomfortable condition. A short quiz to test your knowledge follows the lesson.

Understanding the Urethra

The urethra is the tube that connects your urinary bladder with the outside of your body. Everyone has one; it's the tube that allows you to excrete fluid waste (urine) from your body. Men have a common urethra, where both urine and semen flow from, whereas women have a dedicated urethra, meaning it transports only urine out of the body.

When everything in your body is working properly, you really wouldn't even be aware that this vessel exists, but if you've ever been sick and experienced pain when urinating, you may have been suffering from urethritis.

Female and Male Urethras
Male & Female Urethra

Urethritis Defined

So, what is urethritis? Well, very simply put, urethritis is an inflammation of the urethra. In fact, the suffix 'itis' is added to medical terms to indicate inflammation. So, any time you see that suffix on a word, it means an inflammation of that part of the body. For example, bronchitis is an inflammation of the lungs, or bronchi, tendonitis is an inflammation of a tendon, and hepatitis is an inflammation of the hepatic system, or liver.


Symptoms of Urethritis

The most common symptom of urethritis is painful urination, known as dysuria, which literally means difficult or bad ('dys') urination ('uria'). Other symptoms are frequent urges to urinate, abnormal discharge from the urethra, enlarged lymph nodes in the groin due to infection, itching, tenderness, or swelling of the genitals, and fever and/or chills.

Keep in mind, though, that urethritis isn't an illness or diagnosis like, say, a urinary tract infection is (otherwise known as a UTI). Urethritis merely refers to an inflammation of the urethra and doesn't define any particular cause; rather, it's a side effect typically resulting from one of three primary causes.

What Causes Urethritis?

Urethritis can result from a few different issues, such as bacterial infections, viral infections, parasitic infections, or any trauma to the urethra that causes the tissue to swell and inflame. Let's take a closer look at the three main causes.

Bacterial Infections

While urethritis isn't a diagnosis like a UTI, it can be caused by the same bacteria, known as Escherichia coli, or E. coli. Ok, so if E. coli can cause both a UTI and urethritis, then what's the difference? Well, in a UTI, the bacterial infection has spread and traveled up the urethra to either the bladder or, in severe cases, the kidneys. In urethritis, the infection is localized to the urethra only.

E. coli isn't the only bacterial perpetrator of urethritis, though; Chlamydia trachomatis (the bacteria responsible for the sexually transmitted disease (or STD) known as chlamydia) as well as Neisseria gonorrhoeae (responsible for the STD gonorrhea) can also cause urethritis.

Viral Infections

The herpes simplex virus (known as HSV-1, which causes cold sores of the mouth, or HSV-2, which causes sores on the genitals) or cytomegalovirus (of the herpes viral family) can also cause urethritis. In both cases, the root virus can't be cured, only managed, meaning that outbreaks of urethritis may reoccur as a side effect of the virus; however, treatment can help moderate outbreaks.

Parasitic Infections

Trichomonas vaginalis, another sexually transmitted pathogen, is a single-celled parasite that, when introduced into the urethra during intercourse, can result in urethritis.

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