The urethra is not a part of the body we think of very often, as long as it is working properly: helping us void the urine in our bladders. But is there more to it? How is the urethra different in males and females? There are a lot of things to learn about this seldom-mentioned part of our bodies, as it is much more complex than one might expect!
The urethra is a vital part of the urinary tract, which is also known as the renal system. It is a small duct or tube that transfers urine from the bladder out of the body when you urinate. To be more specific, it connects the urinary bladder (the organ that stores all of the liquid waste you need to eliminate) to the urinary meatus or external urethral orifice -- the opening of the urethra.
Because male reproductive organs are very different from female ones, male and female urethras have entirely different characteristics. In males, the urethra is seven to eight inches long. It stretches the length of the penis, passing from the bladder through the prostate gland, and connects to both the seminal ducts and the testes. For this reason, it is the pathway for semen as well as urine.
The female urethra, unlike the male urethra, only has one purpose: the elimination of urine. A woman's urethra is embedded within the vaginal wall. Its opening is above the entrance to the vagina. The female urethra is much shorter than its male counterpart, usually only around an inch and a half long. It begins at the bladder and passes through the urethral sphincter to exit the body.
Since the layout of male and female bodies is entirely different, it is no surprise the urethra is different too. As mentioned previously, the female urethra is much shorter than the male urethra. While both men and women can get urinary tract infections, they are much more common in women due to the shortness of this tube. The external opening of the urethra is a minimal distance from the interior of the body, which means bacteria and other irritants have a better chance of getting inside before the body's defense system can destroy them. For men, germs and bacteria have to travel a long way to reach the bladder or other organs, giving the body more time to fend them off.
When many people hear the word sphincter, they think of the anus and may not realize the body has many other muscular rings, including the external urethral sphincter. This particular one opens and closes the outer part of the tube-like urethra. In most cases, we are in control of when it opens or closes to release urine.
One difference between the male and female urethra is that males have a second sphincter -- the internal urethral sphincter. As the name implies, it lies closer to the internal organs of the urinary system. Specifically, it resides where the urinary bladder and the urethra meet. It, too, is under voluntary control. Unlike the external urinary sphincter that just regulates urine flow, though, this internal urethral sphincter contracts during ejaculation to keep semen from entering the bladder.
When it is time to urinate, the bladder releases urine with a surprising amount of force. To handle this forceful expulsion, the urethra itself relaxes, allowing the urine to pass through and creating the familiar stream. Once the urine has exited the body, the two parts reverse their roles: the urethra contracts and the bladder relaxes. This process occurs out multiple times a day, depending on how much urine there is to eliminate.
The urethra is composed of muscle fibers and various other tissues; specifically, smooth muscle fibers, sphincter muscle fibers, collagen tissue, and elastic tissue. A mucous membrane lines the urethra, as well, helping to keep things moving smoothly and preventing foreign germs and bacteria from entering the body through the urethral opening.
The care instructions for a male urethra are different than those for a female urethra, but they both boil down to good hygiene. Men should carefully clean their genitals often (especially before and after sex) to remove bacteria that may have been deposited there. They should also wipe from front to back when using the restroom, so as not to infect the penis area with fecal matter. Drinking lots of water is also recommended, as is emptying the bladder often.
Females are several times more likely to experience infections or other problems linked to the urethra, making proper maintenance particularly vital. Drinking a lot of liquids (especially cranberry juice) is also recommended for women, as this helps flush waste out of the system. Wiping from front to back is also important, as is urinating soon after sexual intercourse, to remove unwanted bacteria. Women should also avoid feminine products such as douches, powders, or deodorants, as these can irritate the urethra.
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