What I need to know about Prostate Problems

What is the prostate?

The prostate is part of a man's sex organs. It's about the size of a walnut and surrounds the tube called the urethra, located just below the bladder.

The urethra has two jobs: to carry urine from the bladder when you urinate and to carry semen during a sexual climax, or ejaculation. Semen is a combination of sperm plus fluid that the prostate adds.

What are prostate problems?

For men under 50, the most common prostate problem is prostatitis.

For men over 50, the most common prostate problem is prostate enlargement. This condition is also called benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). Older men are at risk for prostate cancer as well, but this disease is much less common than BPH. More information about prostate cancer is available from the National Cancer Institute.

What is prostatitis?

Prostatitis means the prostate might be inflamed or irritated. If you have prostatitis, you may have a burning feeling when you urinate, or you may have to urinate more often. Or you may have a fever or just feel tired.

Inflammation in any part of the body is usually a sign that the body is fighting germs or repairing an injury. Some kinds of prostatitis are caused by bacteria, tiny organisms that can cause infection or disease. If you have bacterial prostatitis, your doctor can look through a microscope and find bacteria in a sample of your urine. Your doctor can then give you an antibiotic, a medicine that kills bacteria.

Most of the time, doctors don't find any bacteria in men with prostatitis. If you have urinary problems, the doctor will look for other possible causes, such as a kidney stone or cancer.

If no other causes are found, the doctor may decide you have a condition called nonbacterial prostatitis.

You may have to work with your doctor to find a treatment that's right for you. Changing your diet or taking warm baths may help. Your doctor may give you a medicine called an alpha-blocker to relax the muscle tissue in the prostate. No single solution works for everyone with this condition.

What is prostate enlargement, or BPH?

If you're a man over 50 and have started having problems urinating, the reason could be an enlarged prostate, or BPH. As men get older, their prostate keeps growing. As it grows, it squeezes the urethra. Since urine travels from the bladder through the urethra, the pressure from the enlarged prostate may affect bladder control.

If you have BPH, you may have one or more of these problems:

Is BPH a sign of cancer?

No. It's true that some men with prostate cancer also have BPH, but that doesn't mean that the two conditions are always linked. Most men with BPH don't develop prostate cancer. However, because the early symptoms are the same for both conditions, you should see a doctor to evaluate these symptoms.

Is BPH a serious disease?

By itself, BPH is not a serious condition, unless the symptoms are so bothersome that you can't enjoy life. But BPH can lead to serious problems. One problem is urinary tract infections.

If you can't urinate at all, you should get medical help right away. Sometimes this happens suddenly to men after they take an over-the-counter cold or allergy medicine.

In rare cases, BPH and its constant urination problems can lead to kidney damage.

What tests will my doctor order?

Several tests help the doctor identify the problem and decide on the best treatment.

How is BPH treated?

Several treatments are available. Work with your doctor to find the one that's best for you.

Is TURP the same as removing the prostate?

No. TURP and other procedures for BPH remove only enough tissue to relieve urine blockage. In a few cases, the prostate may continue to grow, and urinary problems return. You should continue to have your prostate checked once a year even after surgery to make sure that BPH or prostate cancer has not developed.

A prostate removal, or radical prostatectomy, is usually done only to stop prostate cancer from spreading.

What are the side effects of prostate treatments?

Surgery for BPH may have a temporary effect on sexual function. Most men recover complete sexual function within a year after surgery. The exact length of time depends on how long you had symptoms before surgery was done and on the type of surgery. After TURP, some men find that semen does not go out of the penis during orgasm. Instead, it goes backwards into the bladder. In some cases, this condition can be treated with a drug that helps keep the bladder closed. A doctor who specializes in fertility problems may be able to help if backwards ejaculation causes a problem for a couple trying to get pregnant.

If you have any problems after treatment for a prostate condition, talk with your doctor or nurse. Erection problems and loss of bladder control can be treated, and chances are good that you can be helped.

If your prostate is removed completely to stop cancer, you're more likely to have long-lasting sexual and bladder control problems, such as leaking or dribbling. Your doctor may be able to use a technique that leaves the nerves around the prostate in place. This procedure makes it easier for you to regain bladder control and sexual function. Not all men can have this technique, but most men can be helped with other medical treatments.