People who notice penile discharge may worry that they have a sexually transmitted disease (STD). However, STDs are not the only possible cause of discharge from the penis.

The penis may secrete discharge for several reasons. If it is likely that penile discharge is due to an STD, then it is important to seek treatment. Most STDs are highly treatable, and treatment prevents severe complications.

Male discharge that has a non-STD cause may be a variation of normal discharge, or it could be a sign of an infection that requires treatment.

In this article, we look at the non-STD causes of penile discharge and explain when to see a doctor.

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A person may produce pre-ejaculate during arousal.

Pre-ejaculate is fluid that comes out of the penis during arousal. People also refer to it as 'precum.'

The Cowper's glands make pre-ejaculate, which exits the penis in the same way as semen and urine.

In most cases, there are only a few drops of pre-ejaculate, so some individuals may not notice it at all.

A 2010 study found that some men have sperm in their pre-ejaculate, while others do not. In most cases, the volume of sperm is low.

There is still a chance that pre-ejaculate entering a vagina could result in pregnancy, so men who do not wish their partner to become pregnant should wear a condom even before having sex.

Learn more about pre-ejaculate and pregnancy here.

A urinary tract infection (UTI) occurs when harmful bacteria infect part of the urinary tract. The urinary tract comprises the:

  • bladder
  • prostate
  • kidneys
  • urethra
  • ureters

UTIs are rare in males younger than 50 years of age, and the risk increases as they get older.

Males with UTIs may find urination very painful or be unable to empty their bladder fully. Some may experience incontinence or a frequent urge to urinate. There may be discharge from the penis that is white or frothy, and in some cases, there may also be blood in the urine.

A UTI is a bacterial infection. Most of the time, antibiotics will be necessary to treat the infection. A doctor must prescribe the right type of antibiotics to kill the bacteria, so people should avoid self-medicating or using old antibiotics.

Balanitis is inflammation of the head of the penis. This common infection affects 3–11% of males at some point during their lifetime. Anything that irritates the foreskin or head of the penis, including harsh soaps and other chemicals, can cause balanitis.

Two other conditions that are similar to balanitis include posthitis, which is foreskin inflammation, and balanoposthitis, which is inflammation of both the foreskin and the head of the penis.

Balanitis may cause swelling or itching on the head of the penis. A person may also notice discharge under the foreskin or on the head of the penis.

Fungal infections are the most common cause of balanitis. Diabetes is a risk factor for fungal infections, so balanitis may be more common among those living with this condition.

The type of treatment will depend on the cause of the infection. For example, if a fungal infection is the cause of balanitis, a doctor may prescribe an antifungal drug.

Sometimes, penile discharge can occur as a result of hygiene or self-care issues, such as using an unclean catheter or not receiving appropriate help bathing in a nursing home. In these instances, lifestyle changes may reduce the risk of another episode.

The prostate is a walnut-shaped gland that surrounds the urethra and sits at the front of the rectum. The prostate makes prostate fluid, which helps lubricate semen.

Men with prostatitis may experience:

  • prostate pain
  • difficulty urinating
  • discharge from the penis

Prostatitis happens when the prostate becomes inflamed and irritated, which is sometimes due to a bacterial infection. Prostatitis can be acute or chronic. Chronic prostatitis can develop due to a problem with the immune system or following damage to the prostate or surrounding nerves.

The right treatment depends on whether prostatitis is acute or chronic.

Antibiotics can usually treat acute prostatitis, while chronic prostatitis is more challenging to treat. A combination of medications, as well as home remedies such as sitz baths, may help. Sometimes, surgery is necessary to correct an underlying problem with the prostate or reproductive system.

Smegma is a combination of dead skin cells, water, and the skin oil sebum. It is usually white or yellow. Smegma lubricates the head of the penis, helping prevent pain from friction, especially during sexual activity.

Smegma also contains bacteria. Usually, these bacteria are healthy and beneficial, but harmful bacteria sometimes grow out of control in smegma. An overgrowth of unhealthy bacteria can cause a bad smell and may play a role in certain infections, including UTIs.

Uncircumcised men tend to have more noticeable smegma because the foreskin traps it under the head of the penis.

Although smegma is not dirty or harmful, many people prefer to rinse it away periodically.

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A person should talk to a doctor if they have pain when urinating, having sex, or bathing.

Not all male discharge is a sign of a problem. Sometimes, it appears due to the temporary production of more smegma or pre-ejaculate.

In other cases, an individual might simply notice the discharge more, perhaps because they are paying closer attention to their penis or suddenly feeling self-conscious.

It is advisable for a person to consult a doctor about penile discharge if they experience:

  • discharge that is not from pre-ejaculate or ejaculate
  • pain when urinating, having sex, or bathing
  • swelling on or around the penis
  • a foul smell coming from the penis
  • a fever or other signs of infection, such as feeling nauseated

Even if these symptoms are not present, talking to a doctor about normal discharge can be reassuring. A doctor can help identify what is and is not normal.

Male discharge is normal, healthy, and may even make sex more comfortable. Quite often, if no other symptoms occur alongside the discharge, there may be no cause for concern.

Infections, inflammation, and other problems respond well to treatment, so there is no need to suffer or feel embarrassed. A healthcare provider can often treat abnormal discharge relatively quickly.