The urethra is a part of the renal system. The kidneys, ureters, and bladder are also part of this system. The renal system is responsible for producing, storing, and eliminating liquid waste in the form of urine.

The urethra transports urine that’s stored in the bladder out of the body.

The urethra is closely linked with the reproductive organs, so the anatomy of the urethra is different between males and females.

The female urethra begins at the bottom of the bladder, known as the neck. It extends downward, through the muscular area of the pelvic floor.

Before reaching the urethral opening, urine passes through the urethral sphincter. This is a muscular structure in the urethra that helps hold urine inside the body until it’s released.

The urethra opens into the vestibule, the area between the labia minora. The urethral opening sits just in front of the vaginal opening.

The urethra is lined by a layer of cells called the epithelium. Glands within the urethra produce mucus. This mucus helps protect the epithelium against damage from corrosive urine.

The female urethra is significantly shorter than the male urethra. This means that females often have a higher risk of developing urinary tract infections (UTIs).

Explore the interactive 3-D diagram below to learn more about the female urethra.

Urethritis

Urethritis refers to inflammation of the urethra.

This can cause a range of symptoms, including:

  • increased urge to urinate
  • burning sensation while urinating
  • releasing small amounts of urine at a time
  • cloudy or foul-smelling urine
  • blood in urine
  • pelvic pain

Urethritis sometimes develops in response to a recent urinary procedure or placement of a catheter.

In other cases, it’s due to an infection. Bacteria can spread from the anus to the urethra, especially if you wipe back to front after going to the bathroom.

In addition, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can cause urethritis. These include:

If a surgery or catheter placement is causing urethritis, it usually resolves on its own over time. However, urethritis due to an infection requires treatment with antibiotics or antiviral medication.

Urethral stricture

Sometimes the urethra narrows or becomes blocked. This is known as urethral stricture. Males are more likely to develop urethral stricture because of their longer urethras, but it can affect females as well.

Symptoms of urethral stricture include:

  • decreased urine flow
  • pain while urinating
  • blood in the urine
  • abdominal pain

An injury often causes urethral stricture, such as an accident or surgery. Infections, including STIs, can also cause it.

Most cases are treatable with minor surgery to open up the urethra or remove a blockage.

Urethral cancer

Urethral cancer is one of the rarer types of cancer. It can rapidly spread to surrounding tissues in the bladder and vagina.

It may not cause any symptoms in its early stages. However, urethral cancer can eventually result in:

  • blood in urine
  • bleeding or discharge from the urethra
  • increased need to urinate
  • decreased urine flow

Experts aren’t sure about the exact cause of urethral cancer. There are several things that can increase someone’s risk of developing it, though. Risk factors include:

  • older age
  • history of bladder cancer
  • chronic inflammation of the urethra, usually due to frequent UTIs or STIs

Treatment for urethral cancer includes surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of all three.

Urethral syndrome

Urethral syndrome is a condition that causes symptoms similar to those of a UTI. However, there’s no underlying bacterial or viral infection.

The main symptom of urethral syndrome is chronic pain in the pelvis and urinary tract. In some cases, the pain is constant. In others, certain things, including exercise, allergies, or exposure to irritants, can trigger it.

Other common symptoms include an increased need to urinate and pain while urinating.

Exercise or physical therapy programs may be helpful in treating urethral syndrome. Avoiding scented soaps, perfumes, or bath oils may also help.

For urethral syndrome linked to allergies or food sensitivities, eliminating the following may relieve symptoms:

  • spicy foods
  • acidic foods
  • alcohol
  • caffeine

Urethral caruncle

A urethral caruncle is a benign mass found in the urethra, usually occurring after menopause. It usually doesn’t cause any symptoms. However, some people might notice pain when urinating or bleeding from the urethra.

Experts aren’t sure what causes it, but low estrogen levels might be involved.

Large urethral caruncles can be surgically removed. Otherwise, topical anti-inflammatories or estrogen creams can help.

The most common symptoms of a urethral condition include:

  • an urgent, persistent need to urinate
  • painful urination
  • decreased urine flow
  • cloudy or foul-smelling urine
  • blood in the urine
  • pelvic or abdominal pain

Contact your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms, especially if they last for more than a day or two.

Stay hydrated

Drink plenty of water to help flush out bacteria and other pathogens from the urinary tract. Aim to drink six to eight glasses of water every day.

Eat foods that may prevent UTIs

Cranberries and blueberries may prevent bacteria from attaching to the lining of the urinary tract. They also contain vitamin C, which results in more acidic urine. It’s harder for bacteria to survive in acidic environments.

Wipe front to back

Avoid wiping back to front after going to the bathroom. Doing so can spread bacteria from your anal area to your urethra.

Get regular exams

See your doctor for regular Pap smears, pelvic exams, and STI tests. These can all help identify STIs and some cancers earlier. The earlier a condition is diagnosed, the easier they are to treat.

Practice safe sex

Use protection, such as condoms, when having sex. Make sure to ask new sexual partners about their STI history.

Urinate after intercourse

This helps eliminate any bacteria in or around the urethra.

Avoid irritants

Stay away from scented sprays, douches, or other personal care products. These can irritate the urethra.

Wear loose-fitting clothes and cotton underwear

Bacteria thrive in warm, moist environments. Wearing loose garments and breathable cotton underwear helps remove extra moisture.