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Urethritis is swelling and irritation or inflammation of the urethra. Urethritis is most commonly caused by bacteria or a virus, but can also result from physical injury or sensitivity to some chemicals in spermicides and contraceptive foams and jellies.

The bacteria responsible for urethritis include:

  • E. coli: Present in stool, it's the same bacteria that causes urinary tract infections (UTIs)
  • Gonococcus: Sexually transmitted and causes gonorrhea
  • Chlamydia trachomatis: Sexually transmitted and causes chlamydia

Virues that are commonly responsible for urethritis include:

  • Herpes simplex (HSV-1 and HSV-2)
  • Trichomonas: A single-celled sexually-transmitted organism

Who's At Risk?

The primary causes of urethritis are linked to behaviors, like inadequate hygiene or risky sexual behaviors. Behaviors that put people at the most risk for developing urethritis include:

  • multiple sexual partners
  • high-risk sexual behavior, such as anal sex without a condom
  • a history of sexually transmitted diseases

Symptoms of Urethritis

The primary symptoms of urethritis are urethral inflammation and painful urination. In addition, urethritis symptoms include:

  • frequent or urgent need to urinate
  • difficulty starting urination
  • itching, pain or discomfort when not urinating
  • pain during sex
  • vaginal or urethral discharge
  • abdominal and pelvic pain
  • fever and chills

Diagnosing Urethritis

If you are experiencing painful urination or vaginal or urethral discharge, your doctor may assume an infection is present and may prescribe antibiotics immediately while awaiting test results. Tests can help confirm the diagnosis of urethritis and its cause and can include:

  • physical examination of the genitals, abdomen and rectum to check for discharge and tenderness
  • urine tests for gonorrhea, chlamydia or other bacteria
  • examination of any discharge under a microscope

Blood tests are sometimes performed, but are not often necessary for an accurate diagnosis.

Treating Urethritis

The goal of any treatment for urethritis is to eliminate the cause of infection, prevent the spread of infection and improve your symptoms. There are different treatment options depending on the cause and severity of infection. Pain relievers may also be used in conjunction with other medications to lessen painful symptoms of urethritis .

People with urethritis who are being treated should avoid sex or use condoms during intercourse. If an infection is the cause of the inflammation, your sexual partner must also be treated.

Treating urethritis caused by bacteria

Antibiotics can successfully cure urethritis caused by bacteria. Many different antibiotics can treat urethritis, but some of the most commonly prescribed include:

  • Doxycycline (Adoxa, Monodox, Oracea, Vibramycin)
  • Ceftriaxone (Rocephin)
  • Azithromycin (Zithromax, Zmax)

Urethritis due to trichomonas infection (called trichomoniasis) is usually treated with an antibiotic called Flagyl (metronidazole). Tindamax (tinidazole) is another antibiotic that can treat trichomoniasis. Urethritis that does not clear up after antibiotic treatment and lasts for at least six weeks is called chronic urethritis. Different antibiotics may be used to treat this problem.

Treating urethritis caused by a virus

Urethritis due to the herpes simplex virus can be treated with a number of medications, including:

  • Famciclovir (Famvir)
  • Valacyclovir (Valtrex)
  • Acyclovir (Zovirax)

Preventing Urethritis

Urethritis can be prevented with good personal hygiene and by practicing safer sexual behaviors such as monogamy (one sexual partner only) and using condoms.

Urethritis is preventable and curable, but can lead to permanent damage to the urethra as well as other organs in women. Common complications from urethritis include: