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What is the Urethra?

By Nat Robinson
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The urethra is a tube connected to the bladder. Urine is held in the bladder until it becomes full and then it travels through the urethral opening to be released from the body. Its anatomy is different in men and women. One of the most common differences is that men have longer urethras than do women. Possible problems can include pain, infections, and cancer.

Generally, all humans have urethras. In men, the structure is part of the reproductive system. Located in the penis, it transports urine and semen from the body. This tube in males typically measures about eight inches (about 20.3 cm) long.

In women, the urethra generally is about 1.5 inches (about 3.8 cm) long. Unlike males, it is not part of the female reproductive system. Instead, it is located above the opening of the vagina, within the labia minora. Its only purpose in women is to serve as an exit site for urine.

Many people face problems with this structure at some point in time, including pain. This may be felt as a burning sensation or cramping in the urethra region. It may also manifest as a sharp or aching pain. Causes of such pain may be due to an infection, urinary tract obstruction, sexual transmitted disease, or cancer.

One of the most common problems is infection. Urinary tract infections may either involve an infected bladder — commonly known as cystitis or an infected urethra — where the condition is known as urethritis. There are many possible causes of urethritis including bacteria, sexually transmitted diseases, and viruses. Symptoms of this infection can include pain or a burning sensation while urinating, fever, abdominal pain, frequent urination, and discharge. A urinalysis and a blood test are some of the diagnostic tools commonly used to test for urethritis.

Urethral strictures can also cause problems. This condition causes the tube to be abnormally narrow. A continual occurrence of urethritis, scar tissue and inflammation may lead to urethral strictures. Men are typically more prone to have this condition than women. Some common symptoms of this disorder include penis swelling, bloody semen, difficulty urinating, abdominal pain, and dark urine.

A patient examined for this condition may reveal tenderness of lymph nodes in the groin and an enlargement of the prostate in men. Distention of the bladder may also be noted, if the condition affects the ability for urine to pass efficiently. Urine volume measurements may be taken in addition to a urinalysis. As with urethritis, a sexually transmitted disease may lead to urethral strictures, so the patient may additionally be tested for sexually transmitted diseases during the examination.

Cancer can be an additional problem in this area. Possible causes of this type of cancer may be consistent bouts with urinary tract infections and sexually transmitted diseases. A previous diagnosis of bladder cancer may also be a leading cause. Blood in the urine, discharge, and a groin with swollen lymph nodes are some general symptoms. Common tests used to diagnose this cancer include a blood test, a pelvic exam for women, and urine cytology to look for abnormal cells in the urine.

People experiencing any problems with the urethra should seek medical help at once. Ignoring symptoms will likely only worsen any problems that may exist. Abnormalities such as fever, nausea, discharge, and painful urination that may be accompanied by a burning sensation generally are cause for concern. A medical professional can accurately diagnose the problem and then suggest a course of treatment.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By umbra21 — On May 29, 2011

@pastanaga - Kidney stones are much more likely to affect men than they are to affect women. On the other hand, some people speculate that could be because kidney stones don't always hurt all that much, in men or women. Some women may simply think they are having menstrual pain when they are actually passing a kidney stone.

Even though the female urethra is shorter than the male urethra, it can hurt just as much. Drinking a lot of water, and eating fruits and vegetables can help prevent the stones from forming in the first place. And if you have unusual stomach or back pain that keeps going, you should get it checked out.

By pastanaga — On May 26, 2011

I have heard that passing a kidney stone, which of course, needs to come out through the urethra, is one of the most painful experiences a person can have. It can be better or worse depending on the shape and size of it.

Women who have gone through child birth say that it can't compare. Passing a kidney stone is worse. And they have a shorter urethra than men do, so perhaps they don't suffer for as long?

But it seems like pain in the urethra happens at the drop of a hat. I guess it's just such a critical part of the body, it gets infected easily.

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