Urethritis and Urethral Discharge in Men

If you have a urethral discharge you are likely to have a sexually transmitted infection which you can pass on to others. See a doctor, even if symptoms go.

What is urethritis and what causes it?

Urethritis means inflammation of the urethra. The urethra is the tube between the bladder and the end of the penis. Urethritis is usually caused by a sexually transmitted infection but not always. It can occur within a stable relationship.

  • Gonorrhoea is one type of sexually transmitted infection which can cause urethritis. See separate leaflet called Gonorrhoea for more details.
  • Non-gonococcal urethritis (NGU) is the term used to describe urethritis caused by anything other than gonorrhoea. A germ (bacterium) called chlamydia is the common cause of NGU. This is one type of sexually transmitted infection. NGU can also be caused by a variety of other germs (bacteria or viruses). NGU may rarely have a non-infective cause. For example, damage from a catheter (a thin, flexible, hollow tube), a thrush infection, soap, spermicides, a narrowing of the urethra (stenosis) and diseases affecting the urethral lining can all cause inflammation. See separate leaflet called Non-gonococcal Urethritis, which describes NGU in more detail.
  • No cause can be found in up to three out of ten men with urethritis.

Some men have gonococcal and non-gonococcal urethritis at the same time.

Who gets urethritis?

You are at higher risk of getting  inflammation of the urethra (urethritis) if you are sexually active, aged under 35 and have had a recent partner change. Men who have sex with men and those who have unprotected vaginal intercourse are also at higher risk.

What are the symptoms of urethritis?

  • A fluid (discharge) from the end of the penis is common but does not always occur.
  • Pain or burning when you pass urine. This may be confused with a urine infection.
  • You may have irritation inside the penis, or a feeling of wanting to pass urine frequently.
  • Some men with urethritis never develop any symptoms. For example, up to half of men with chlamydial infection (the most common cause of NGU) do not have any symptoms.

How does urethritis progress?

Occasionally, symptoms may clear without treatment but may take months to do so. If your condition has been caused by an infection, germs (bacteria) may still be present, even if the symptoms have gone.

Therefore, you are still likely to be infectious and can still pass on the infection even if symptoms go. The bacterium that commonly causes inflammation of the urethra (urethritis) in men (chlamydia) can cause serious problems in women.

What should I do if I have symptoms of urethritis?

  • See a doctor, or go to your local genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic, even if symptoms go. You can go to the local GUM clinic without a referral from your GP. You can ring the local hospital or health authority and ask where the nearest clinic is. It may also be listed in the phone book under 'Genito-Urinary Medicine'.
  • Your doctor may do a test or refer you to a GUM clinic. This will usually be a urine test, although a 'swab' of urethra may be taken as well.
  • You may be asked to have tests for HIV, hepatitis and syphilis, as people with inflammation of the urethra (urethritis) sometimes have these conditions as well.
  • Men who have sex with men may also need to have swabs taken from the back of the throat (pharynx) and rectum.
  • The GUM clinic will protect your confidentiality but, if they confirm you have an infection, they may want to contact anyone you had sex with up to six months before you were diagnosed. This is called 'contact tracing'.
  • Medicines called antibiotics will usually clear an infection. The antibiotic prescribed depends on the cause. Make sure you complete the course.
  • If your urethritis is due to gonorrhoea it is vital that you have another test after you have been treated to make sure the infection has been cured. This will be done three or seven days after treatment, depending on the type of test.
  • Tell your sexual partner(s) to see their doctor or go to a GUM clinic, even if they have no symptoms. Many women with sexually transmitted infections do not have symptoms.
  • Don't have sex (including oral and anal sex) until you and your sexual partner(s) have completed tests and treatment. You should wait seven days after you have had your treatment course to avoid passing on the infection: your doctor will advise.