What Causes Penile Discharge?

By Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
May 10, 2022

Pre-ejaculate fluid, also known as precum, and ejaculate fluid, sometimes called cum, are two common and healthy examples of penile discharge.

Both are secreted through the urethra.

While pre-ejaculate fluid can be secreted before or during sexual activity, ejaculate fluid is excreted during orgasm and at the end of sexual activity. 

However, discharge from the penis independent of sexual arousal is also possible and can sometimes be sign of an infection or other abnormality.

In this article, we’ll cover the possible causes of penile discharge, the different ways penile discharge can look, and when you may want to reach out to a healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment.

What is Penile Discharge?

Penile discharge refers to discharge or fluid that is secreted from the urethra in the penis.

The urethra is a small, narrow tube that passes from the bladder through the penis.

In addition to secreting fluids and discharge, the urethra allows for the passage of urine.

However, it’s important to note that although they both travel through the urethra, penile discharge is not the same as urine.

Penile discharge can be secreted for a number of possible reasons, including sexual arousal or infection.

Colors

Healthy penile discharge is usually white, cloudy, or clear.

However, penile discharge caused by infection and other causes can be other colors, including:

  • Green
  • Yellow
  • Bloody

Keep in mind that penile discharge that is green, yellow, or bloody is a sign of an underlying infection or problem.

If you notice penile discharge that is a color other than white or cloudy, reach out to your healthcare provider.  

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Causes and Treatments

There are several possible causes of penile discharge that is released at times other than sexual arousal. In most cases, this discharge is a sign of an infection or condition that requires medical attention.

Balanitis

Balanitis is an inflammation of the head of the penis most commonly caused by a fungal or bacterial infection, and it is not a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

It is fairly common, affecting approximately 1 in every 25 boys and 1 in 30 uncircumcised males during their lifetime.

Though any person with a penis can get balanitis, it’s most likely to occur in boys under the age of four and uncircumcised adults.

Additional risk factors include:

  • Poor hygiene
  • Morbid obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Condom catheters
  • Sensitivity to chemical irritants used in soaps, lubricants, etc.
  • Reactive arthritis
  • Other STIs

One of the primary symptoms of balanitis is a thick, white penile discharge.

Other possible symptoms include:

  • Penile pain
  • Redness around the head of the penis
  • Tight, shiny skin on the head of the penis
  • Penile inflammation, soreness, itchiness, or irritation
  • A foul smell
  • Tight foreskin that cannot retract
  • Painful urination
  • Swollen glands near the penis
  • Sores on the head of the penis

Diagnosis of balanitis usually involves physical examination and a bacterial or fungal culture.

Depending on the cause of the inflammation, your provider may recommend an antifungal or antibacterial treatment.

Prostatitis

Prostatitis is an inflammation of the prostate and sometimes the areas around the prostate, the walnut-shaped gland responsible for producing the fluid that goes into semen.

It’s also the most common urinary tract problem for people with penises under the age of 50. 

Broadly, there are four types of prostatitis:

  • Chronic prostatitis
  • Acute bacterial prostatitis
  • Chronic bacterial prostatitis
  • Asymptomatic inflammatory prostatitis

People with asymptomatic inflammatory prostatitis don’t experience symptoms.

But those with one of the other three types of prostatitis can experience severe pain along with other possible symptoms, including:

  • High fever
  • Lower back pain
  • Painful ejaculations

Acute and chronic bacterial prostatitis can also cause a foul-smelling discharge.

In some cases, the discharge may also be bloody.

Your provider can diagnose prostatitis with a physical exam and possible medical tests, such as a urinalysis, semen analysis, or blood test.

Treatment options will vary depending on the type of prostatitis.

Smegma

Smegma is a white, cheese-like material produced by small glands in the surface of the head of the penis. It can accumulate under the foreskin in people with uncircumcised penises.

Smegma is normal and not a sign of an underlying condition or infection.

Urinary tract infections

A urinary tract infection (UTI) can affect any part of the urinary tract, including the kidneys, bladder, ureters, and urethra.

The two most common causes of UTIs in people with penises are the bacterium escherichia coli (E. coli) and STIs like gonorrhea or chlamydia.

UTIs caused by gonorrhea or chlamydia are more common in young people who are sexually active.

The primary symptom of UTIs is an increase in urinary frequency, or experiencing a frequent urge to urinate.

Other symptoms are also possible, including:

  • A painful or burning sensation while urinating
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Pressure in the lower abdomen
  • Pain in the back or side below the ribs
  • Foul-smelling urine
  • Unusual penile discharge

If you think you may have a UTI, it’s important to see your doctor who can confirm the diagnosis with a simple urine test.

If confirmed, your provider will prescribe antibiotic treatment.

Urethritis

Urethritis describes an inflammation of the urethra. Several bacteria and viruses can cause urethritis, including:

  • E coli
  • Chlamydia
  • Gonorrhea
  • Herpes simplex virus
  • Cytomegalovirus

Injury and sensitivity to chemicals can also cause urethritis. In some cases, the exact cause of urethritis is unknown.

For people with penises, those between the ages of 20 to 35 are most likely to get urethritis.

Other risk factors include:

  • Having many sexual partners
  • High-risk sexual behavior (including unprotected sex)
  • History of STIs

Though symptoms of urethritis can vary, the most common include:

  • Blood in urine
  • Blood in semen
  • Burning pain while urinating
  • Penile discharge
  • Fever
  • Frequent urination, or feeling the urge to urinate frequently
  • Itching, tenderness, or swelling of the penis
  • Enlarged lymph nodes in the pelvic area
  • Pain with intercourse
  • Pain during ejaculation

A physical examination is required to diagnose urethritis.

During the examination, your provider may examine your abdomen, bladder area, penis, and scrotum.

They may also perform a digital rectal exam or cystoscopy, which uses a small camera to look into the bladder.

Treatment options will vary depending on the cause of urethritis, but may include antibiotics and over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers.

Importantly, people with urethritis should avoid sex until the treatment course is complete. If sexually active, it’s important to use condoms during that time.

If left untreated, urethritis can lead to long-term damage of the urethra and scar tissue.

In rare cases, it can also lead to:

  • Damage of other urinary organs
  • Bladder infection
  • Epididymitis
  • Infection in the testicles
  • Prostatitis

Chlamydia

Chlamydia is a highly contagious bacterial STI that can be spread through unprotected sexual contact, including oral, anal, and vaginal sex.

It is caused by a bacteria called Chlamydia trachomatis and is most often found in the genitals, but can also be found in the rectum and throat. 

Any sexually active person can get chlamydia, but there are some people who are more at risk.

These include:

  • Anyone having unprotected sex with new or multiple partners
  • People who have a sex partner with confirmed chlamydia, gonorrhea, or another STI
  • People with a current STI
  • People who have recently had a STI

The most common symptoms of chlamydia are:

  • Burning sensation during urination
  • Unusual discharge from the penis
  • Abdominal pain (particularly in the lower abdomen)
  • Pain or swelling of the testicles 

Diagnosing and treating chlamydia is key to preventing the spread and treating symptoms with antibiotics.

Gonorrhea 

Similar to chlamydia, gonorrhea is another highly contagious bacterial STI that can be spread through unprotected sexual contact, including oral, anal, and vaginal sex.

The bacteria that causes gonorrhea is called Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacterium, also known as gonococcus.

Symptoms in people with penises include:

  • Painful or burning sensation when urinating
  • White, yellow, or green discharge from the penis

As with any STI, getting diagnosed is the best way to stop the spread and start treatment.

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When to See a Medical Provider

In most cases, discharge outside of sexual activity is a sign of an infection or underlying condition.

If you’re experiencing unusual discharge and any other symptoms, including pain or burning sensations while urinating, it’s important to reach out to your healthcare provider for help. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

Can you have penile discharge without having an STD?
Yes, there are several possible causes of penile discharge, some of which are not a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Non-STI causes of penile discharge include smegma, urinary tract infections (UTIs), and balanitis.
What does chlamydia penile discharge look like?
Penile discharge caused by a chlamydial infection is usually white. But penile discharge caused by a gonorrheal infection can be white, yellow, or green.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN

Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN is a board certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 15 years experience. He received his Undergraduate and Graduate degrees from William Paterson University and his doctoral degree from Drexel University. He has spent his career working in the Emergency Room and Primary Care. The last 6 years of his career have been dedicated to the field of digital medicine. He has created departments geared towards this specialized practice as well as written blogs and a book about the topic.