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What Is the Prostate?

Awareness of prostate health has come a long way since the days when comedians would confuse "prostate" with "prostrate." Yet, many men still aren't sure what the prostate is, what its functions are, and how to have good prostate health. Knowing the answers to these questions is the key to understanding prostate health.

What Is the Prostate?

The prostate is a small gland in men that is part of the reproductive system. It's about the shape and size of a walnut. The prostate rests below the bladder and in front of the rectum. It surrounds part of the urethra, the tube that carries urine from the bladder. The prostate helps make semen, which carries sperm from the testicles when a man ejaculates.

Enlarged Prostate

As a man ages, the prostate can grow larger. When a man reaches the age of 40, the prostate gland might have increased from the size of a walnut to that of an apricot. By the time he reaches the age of 60, it might be the size of a lemon.

Because it surrounds part of the urethra, the enlarged prostate can squeeze the urethra. This causes problems in the passing of urine. Typically, these problems passing urine don't occur in men until they are age 50 or older. They can, though, occur earlier.

An enlarged prostate is also called benign (noncancerous) prostatic hyperplasia or BPH. It is common and cannot be prevented. Age and a family history of BPH are risk factors. Eight out of every 10 men eventually develop an enlarged prostate. About 90% of men over the age of 85 will have BPH. About 30% of men will find their symptoms bothersome.

Symptoms of an enlarged prostate may include:

  • Trouble starting to urinate or urinating freely
  • Having to urinate frequently, particularly at night
  • Feeling that the bladder is not empty after urinating
  • Feeling a sudden urge to urinate
  • Having to stop and start repeatedly while urinating
  • Having to strain to urinate

To maintain prostate health, it is important for men who have early symptoms of BPH to see their doctor. BPH is a progressive disease. It can lead to serious, although rare, health problems, such as kidney or bladder damage.

Treatments include:

  • Watchful waiting. Patients who have an enlarged prostate but who are not suffering symptoms or whose symptoms are not bothersome may be advised by their doctor to merely get an annual checkup, which might include a variety of tests.
  • Making lifestyle changes. Changes could include limiting drinking at night and before bedtime, especially drinks containing alcohol or caffeine.
  • Drug therapy. Two common treatments for BPH are alpha-blockers, which alleviate BPH symptoms, and 5 alpha-reductase inhibitors, which help shrink the prostate. Many men take them together. The FDA is revising labels on several BPH drugs -- Proscar, Avodart, and Jalyn -- to include a warning that the drugs may be linked to an increased risk of prostate cancer.
  • Surgery. This is generally used for men with severe symptoms who haven't been helped by other treatment.

 

WebMD Medical Reference

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