What Is the Urethra?

What You Should Know About Keeping Your Urethra Healthy

Urinary system, Artwork
Getty/Science Photo Library/PIXOLOGICSTUDIO

The urethra is a small tube that allows urine to flow out of the body. As you urinate, the bladder contracts and empties urine into the urethra. This tube-like structure extends all the way to the genitals. When the urethral sphincter muscle relaxes, urination occurs. 

For men, the urethra also provides an outlet for sperm leave the body through the penis. The urethra in women is much shorter, leading from the bladder out of the body through a small opening located just above the vagina.

 It is about 1.5-inches long, about 10 times shorter than that of men. It can be hard to spot the urethra. In women, it is located between the vagina and the clitoris, and the anus is just a few inches away.

This is one reason women are more affected by urinary tract infections (UTIs). Bacteria have a much shorter distance to travel.

Health Concerns Connected to the Urethra

If you experience itchiness of—or discharge from—your urethra, you may have a condition called urethritis. This is an inflammation of the urethra, commonly caused by sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as gonorrhea or chlamydia.

Another infection that stems from your urethra is the urinary tract infection (UTI), which can occur when bacteria enter the urethra. During sexual activity, bacteria in the vaginal area are sometimes massaged into the urethra, which makes sex one of the most common causes of UTIs. Women are particularly susceptible to UTIs because they have a shorter urinary tract than men.

Luckily, the infection is easily treated with antibiotics.

How to Avoid Getting a UTI

Though most women will get a UTI at least once in their lifetime, you can be more likely to prevent this infection by practicing good personal hygiene, always wiping from front to back after going to the bathroom, and washing the skin around and between the rectum and vagina daily.

Washing before and after sexual intercourse may also decrease a woman's risk of contracting a UTI. Other things you can do include:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids each day to help flush bacteria out of the urinary system
  • Emptying the bladder as soon as you feel the urge to urinate
  • Urinating before and after sex in order to flush out any bacteria that may enter the urethra during sexual intercourse
  • Taking vitamin C regularly in order to reduce the number of potentially harmful bacteria in the urinary tract system.
  • Wear only cotton underpants, so as to allow moisture to escape 
  • Drinking cranberry juice, which has been said to reduce the frequency of bladder infections
  • Changing sexual positions that cause less friction on the urethra

Some physicians also prescribe an antibiotic to be taken immediately following sex for women who tend to have frequent UTIs.

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