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Male Urethritis Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Michael C Plewa, MD; Chief Editor: Erik D Schraga, MD  more...
Updated: Apr 08, 2016


The majority, but certainly not all, of patients with urethritis are symptomatic and may experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Urethral discharge, purulent or mucopurulent
  • Dysuria
  • Urethral pruritus
  • Hematuria or hemospermia
  • Painful intercourse or ejaculation

Asymptomatic urethritis is common (16%)[26] and typically nongonococcal in etiology. Patients may be detected with partner screening for STIs or with physical examination revealing unrecognized urethral discharge.[26, 27]

Gonococcal urethritis (GCU) has a more abrupt onset of symptoms, commonly within 3-4 days and usually within 7 days, with opaque yellow or white discharge and significant dysuria.

In contrast, NGU has insidious onset, minimal dysuria, and scant or mucoid or clear discharge.

Urinary frequency and urgency typically are absent. If present, either should suggest prostatitis or cystitis.

Systemic symptoms (eg, fever, chills, sweats, nausea) are typically absent but, if present, may suggest disseminated gonococcemia, pyelonephritis, orchitis, or other infection.

Ask about number and sex of sexual partners and condom use.

Ask about history of STDs, including previous urethritis.

Ask about recent urethral catheterization or instrumentation, either medical or self-induced (eg, foreign body).

Ask about the following systemic symptoms of disseminated gonococcal, chlamydial, or mycoplasmal infections:



Male urethritis as a localized inflammatory process would not be expected to result in the appearance of toxicity or significant abnormal vital signs, including fever. Systemic findings of sepsis such as fever or hypotension should prompt consideration of another disease process.

Examine the urethral meatus for skin lesion, stricture, or obvious urethral discharge. The urethral meatus may appear inflamed with tenderness, erythema, and possibly swelling. Urethral discharge, whether purulent or mucopurulent, secures the diagnosis.

Palpate along the urethra for areas of fluctuance, tenderness, or warmth suggestive of abscess or for firmness suggestive of foreign body.

Have the patient strip (milk) the urethra outwards to express discharge.

Physical examination is important in men at risk for STIs, especially those previously treated for urethritis, even if without symptoms, since as many as 10% of asymptomatic cases will have findings.[28]

Examine the testes and epididymis for swelling, tenderness, or warmth suggestive of orchitis or epididymitis.

Examine the foreskin and glans for evidence of balanitis or posthitis, which may be associated with M genitalium infection.[29]

Palpate the prostate for tenderness or bogginess suggestive of prostatitis.

Look at the skin of the penis, scrotum, and groin for lesions indicative of other STIs, such as herpes simplex, syphilis (including condyloma acuminatum), lymphogranuloma venereum, or chancroid.

In patients with symptoms suggestive of disseminated gonococcal, chlamydial, or mycoplasmal disease, the remainder of the physical examination should assess the pharynx, joints, skin, conjunctivae, tympanic membranes, and lungs.



Promiscuous or unprotected sex is a significant risk factor for urethritis or other sexually transmitted diseases (STIs).


N gonorrhoeae, the cause of gonococcal urethritis (GCU) is a gram-negative intracellular diplococcus, which can also be involved in epididymitis, prostatitis, proctitis, septic arthritis, disseminated infection, pharyngitis, osteomyelitis, as well as pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, endometritis, Bartholin gland abscess in women and conjunctivitis in neonates. GCU typically causes a discharge.


Nongonococcal urethritis (NGU) can be caused by various organisms (see list below). A recent study of 293 symptomatic young heterosexual men with NGU detected C trachomatis in 44%, M genitalium in the 31%, T vaginalis in 13%, and no detectable pathogen in 28% (Ureasplasma screening not available).[2]

In one study of 424 men with signs and symptoms of acute urthritis, 127 (30%) were found to be infected with N gonorrhoeae. In 297 men with nongonococcal urethritis, C trachomatis was detected in 143 (48.1%). In 154 men with nonchlamydial nongonococcal urethritis, M genitalium (22.7%), M hominis (5.8%), U parvum (9.1%), U urealyticum (19.5%), H influenzae (14.3%), N meningitidis (3.9%), T vaginalis (1.3%), human adenovirus (16.2%), and herpes simplex virus types 1 (7.1%) and 2 (2.6%) were detected.[12]

The etiology of nongonococcal urethritis often cannot be determined in 30-40% of patients, according to some studies. In a Swedish study, the etiology in at least 24% of patients with acute nongonococcal urethritis could not be identified.[30]

C trachomatis, an obligate intracellular organism, is likely the most common nongonococcal cause of urethritis, present in as many as 43% of NGU cases.[1] This organism can also be involved in prostatitis, proctitis, epididymitis, lymphogranuloma venereum as well as pelvic inflammatory disease, chronic pelvic pain and infertility in women, and trachoma and neonatal pneumonia.

Mycoplasma are non–cell-walled organisms associated with mucosal surfaces. Both Mycoplasma and Ureaplasma species can cause urethritis, pyelonephritis, pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility and endometritis in women, and chorioamnionitis, neonatal pneumonia, bacteremia, and meningitis in infants. Rarely, these can result in infectious arthritis, osteomyelitis, abscess, and even struvite kidney stones. They each can be transmitted sexually as well as vertically from mother to infant. These organisms are not routinely tested for in urethritis since PCR is not yet clinically available in most settings. Specialized culture media and growing conditions are required, and use of a calcium alginate swab is necessary for isolation.

With M genitalium and M hominis, special techniques, such as NAAT, may be necessary to differentiate between Mycoplasma and Ureaplasma species and are not typically available in the clinical setting. M genitalium may be the second most common cause of NGU and should be considered in cases of refractory NGU and in NGU testing negative for N gonorrhoea and C trachomatis.[31]

With regard to U parvum and U urealyticum, Ureaplasma, previously thought to be nonpathogenic, and part of normal genital flora in as many as 70% of sexually active humans, have recently been determined to be associated with urethritis, especially when present in high numbers.[32]

Trichomonas is a single-celled, motile parasite, easily visible on wet mount, which infects the squamous epithelium of the genital tract. As many as 70% of male sexual partners of women with T vaginalis will also be transiently colonized. Although commonly transmitted sexually, T vaginalis can also be transmitted via fomites. Men with T vaginalis are more often asymptomatic carriers, but T vaginali s can cause urethritis and may also be involved in prostatitis, epididymitis, and balanoposthitis. In women, vaginitis is typical, but T vaginalis can coexist with other organisms in pelvic inflammatory disease, endometritis, Bartholin gland abscess, postoperative infections (cuff cellulitis), cervical neoplasia, and, during pregnancy, can also result in preterm delivery and low birth weight infants.

The prevalence of T vaginalis may be decreasing in some regions. Lewis et al reported T vaginalis prevalence decreased from 13% in 2007 to 5% in 2012 in South Africa.[33]

Gardnerella is a gram-negative anaerobic organism existing in a biofilm on mucosal surfaces. Previously considered nonpathogenic in males, G vaginalis is now thought to be associated with male urethritis, cystitis, balanoposthitis, as well as sepsis, pulmonary abscess, perinephric abscess or osteomyelitis in rare cases. As many as 80% of male sexual partners of women with bacterial vaginosis are colonized. In women, G vaginalis is involved in pelvic inflammatory disease, endometritis, infertility, postoperative infections (cuff cellulitis), preterm labor (and low birth weight infants), chorioamnionitis, and cervical neoplasia.


Rare infectious causes of urethritis include herpes genitalis, syphilis, mycobacterium, N meningitidis, H influenzae, Streptococcus species , Candida species, adenovirus, cytomegalovirus, as well as typical bacteria (usually gram-negative rods) associated with cystitis in the presence of urethral stricture or following insertive anal sex.

Idiopathic urethritis, which is defined by some as urethral symptoms without NAAT evidence of the 4 most common causes (N gonorrhea, C trachomatis, T vaginalis, and M genitalium),[19] is a common classification of urethritis in young men.[34]

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Michael C Plewa, MD Research Coordinator, Consulting Staff, Department of Emergency Medicine, Lucas County Emergency Physicians, Inc, and Mercy Saint Vincent Medical Center

Michael C Plewa, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American College of Emergency Physicians, American Medical Association, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Richard H Sinert, DO Professor of Emergency Medicine, Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine, Research Director, State University of New York College of Medicine; Consulting Staff, Vice-Chair in Charge of Research, Department of Emergency Medicine, Kings County Hospital Center

Richard H Sinert, DO is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Erik D Schraga, MD Staff Physician, Department of Emergency Medicine, Mills-Peninsula Emergency Medical Associates

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

David S Howes, MD Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics, Residency Program Director Emeritus, Section of Emergency Medicine, University of Chicago, University of Chicago, The Pritzker School of Medicine

David S Howes, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American College of Emergency Physicians, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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