What to know about urethral syndrome

By | May 13, 2019
Urethral syndrome describes a group of symptoms that occur when the urethra becomes irritated. The urethra is the tube that carries urine from the bladder to the outside of the body.

In this article, we discuss what urethral syndrome is along with its risk factors and symptoms. We also cover diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.

What is urethral syndrome?

Man with urethral syndrome sitting with hands covering crotch in doctor's office
Urethral syndrome can cause pain in the genitals and lower back.

Urethral syndrome, also known as urethral pain syndrome, is the term for a group of symptoms that can occur when the urethra becomes irritated.

The urethra is the thin tube of muscle that runs between the bladder and the outside of the body. In males, the urethra also carries semen from the testicles during ejaculation.

When the urethra becomes irritated, it swells up and the tube narrows, which can make it more difficult for a person to pass urine.

The symptoms of urethral syndrome are similar to those of urinary tract infections (UTIs) and urethritis, which can also affect the urethra. However, bacterial and viral infections are not the cause of urethral syndrome.

Urethral syndrome can occur in both males and females.

Symptoms

The symptoms of urethral syndrome can include:

Males with urethral syndrome may also experience discharge from their penis and symptoms relating to sexual function, such as swollen testicles, pain while ejaculating, and blood in the semen.

Risk factors

Doctors do not fully understand what causes urethral syndrome. However, certain health conditions and environmental factors can increase a person’s risk of developing urethral syndrome.

Some possible risk factors of urethral syndrome include the following:

Sexually transmitted infections

Sexually transmitted infections (STI) can increase the risk of developing urethral syndrome. STIs that may lead to urethral syndrome include gonorrhea, chlamydia, and mycoplasma genitalium.

Foods

Substances in certain foods can enter the urine and irritate the urethra. Foods that may increase the risk of urethral syndrome in some people include:

  • foods and beverages containing caffeine
  • hot or spicy foods
  • alcohol

Irritants

Scented soap products can cause irritation to the urethra.
Scented soap products can irritate the urethra.

Chemicals in soaps, personal hygiene products, and contraceptives can contain chemicals that irritate the urethra in some people. These can include:

  • scented soaps, body washes, and bubble baths
  • feminine hygiene sprays or douches
  • sanitary products
  • contraceptive gels
  • condoms

Urinary tract infection

People can sometimes develop urethral syndrome after recently having a UTI. This is because the urethra can be very sensitive while recovering from an infection.

Sexual intercourse

Rough sexual activity can damage the urethra, especially in females. In these instances, the inflammation that leads to urethral syndrome is part of the natural healing process.

Other risk factors

Other risk factors for urethral syndrome can include:

  • having sex without a condom
  • having a history of STIs
  • bacterial infections in the bladder or kidneys
  • taking medications that suppress the immune system
  • structural problems, such as a narrow urethra

Women who have given birth to several children may also be at greater risk of urethral syndrome. Having a delivery without an episiotomy, which is when a doctor makes an incision in the tissue between the vagina and the anus, can also increase a woman’s risk of developing urethral syndrome.

Diagnosis

A doctor, who is usually a specialist called a urologist or a urogynecologist, will diagnose urethral syndrome. Diagnosis can be difficult because the symptoms are often similar to those of other conditions, such as UTI, urethritis, or cystitis.

Urologists usually only diagnose a person with urethral syndrome after ruling out other possible causes.

In most cases, the urologist will request a urine sample. They will also ask the person about their symptoms, risk factors, and medical history. The urologist may also carry out a physical examination.

Treatment

A course of antibiotics can treat a UTI.
A course of antibiotics can treat a UTI.

Treatment depends on the suspected cause of the condition.

For people with an STI, UTI, or other infection, a urologist may prescribe medications to treat the infection. They may recommend a course of antibiotics if the infection is bacterial.

A urologist may also prescribe medications to relieve pain and inflammation.

If the urologist suspects that the cause is an irritating soap or hygiene product, then they may recommend the person tries stopping or changing products. Further treatment may not be necessary.

Some urologists also recommend making dietary changes to help treat urethral syndrome.

In a 2002 study, researchers asked females with urethral syndrome to follow a strict diet for 12 weeks that did not allow any coffee, alcohol, or spicy foods. Of the 675 women who took part, 89 percent reported that their symptoms had completely gone by the end of the trial.

Prevention

It may not always be possible to prevent urethral syndrome. However, a person can reduce their risk of developing this condition by:

  • using a condom during sex
  • using perfume-free body washes, bubble baths, and sanitary products
  • limiting or reducing alcohol and caffeine intake
  • avoiding hot or spicy foods

Summary

Urethral syndrome refers to a group of symptoms that affect the urethra, which is the thin tube of muscle which connects the bladder to the outside of the body. These symptoms can include urination difficulties and pain or discomfort in the lower abdomen.

Doctors do not fully understand what causes urethral syndrome. However, risk factors for urethral syndrome can include infections and irritants from certain foods and hygiene products.

Treatment of urethral syndrome often involves treatment of any underlying conditions or avoiding foods and hygiene products that can irritate the urethra.

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