Health and the Prostate Gland

June is Men’s Health Month, so it’s time to talk about the prostate. The prostate gland is small, but it can cause big problems, especially in men over 50.

The prostate is a walnut-sized gland that plays an important role in the male reproductive system. It isn’t directly involved in urination, but because it is responsible for producing seminal fluid, and because of its location right next to the urethra, prostate problems are usually reflected in urination issues.

Prostate cancer is probably the best known risk. It is the second leading cause of cancer death in American men. With early detection, however, there is a 99 percent survival rate over five years. It is common in men over 60, and almost unheard of—though possible—in men under 40. People with a family history of prostate cancer and African Americans are particularly at risk, as are farmers, tire plant workers, painters, and men who have been around the radioactive metal cadmium or the chemical weapon Agent Orange.

However, most prostate problems are not cancer. Far more common are prostatitis and an enlarged prostate condition called benign prostatic hyperplasia, or BPH.

Prostate problems in men under 50 are almost always an inflammation called prostatitis. Symptoms of prostatitis include painful, difficult, frequent, or urgent urination. It’s often difficult to tell why the gland is inflamed. It it’s due to bacterial infection, which can be determined by urinalysis, the usual treatment is a course of antibiotics. In most cases no cause is identified; the inflammation may be the result of injury or of a disorder of the immune system or the nervous system, but often the precise cause of a specific instance is unclear. Prostatitis can be difficult to treat in these cases, though anti-inflammatory drugs and medications called alpha blockers can be effective.

Even if you’re over 50, BPH is far more common than prostate cancer. In fact, more than 90 percent of men over 80 have some degree of prostate enlargement; some researchers have speculated that enlarged prostate is inevitable as you get older. However, BPH is not cancer, doesn’t raise your cancer risk, and in most cases is completely asymptomatic. When symptoms do appear, they include urinary retention, incomplete emptying, incontinence, and weak, frequent, painful, or delayed urination. BPH is usually best treated with lifestyle changes such as drinking liquids in smaller quantities throughout the day and avoiding caffeine after dinner, though in severe cases medications can be prescribed.

Your doctor can help you manage prostate health and answer your questions about taking care of your prostate so it takes care of you.

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