The prostate is a gland and reproductive organ located directly beneath the urinary bladder.
About the size and shape of a walnut, the prostate is only found in males and is an important part of the male reproductive system. (1)
Note that although females do not have a prostate, they do have the Skene's gland, or paraurethral gland, which is located at the lower end of the urethra and considered homologous to the prostate gland. (2)
Numerous health issues may affect the prostate as men get older, including prostatitis (prostate inflammation), prostate infections, enlarged prostate, and prostate cancer. (1)
Where Is the Prostate and What Does It Look Like?
The prostate is situated between the bladder and penis, just in front of the rectum (lower end of the bowel). It is above the muscles of the pelvic floor.
The urethra, a narrow tube that carries urine and semen out of the body through the penis, runs through the center of the prostate, which weighs less than 1 ounce (20 to 30 grams).
The word "prostate" comes from the Greek word "prostates," which means "one who stands before," aptly describing the position of the gland. That is, when viewed from below, the prostate "stands before" the bladder.
Because the rectum is behind the prostate, it is possible to feel the prostate with a finger when inserted through the rectum. The prostate feels elastic because it's surrounded by a supportive tissue called the stroma, which is made of flexible smooth muscle fibers and connective tissue (the prostate itself also contains many smooth muscle cells).
The muscle cells contract during ejaculation, forcing fluid stored in the prostate into the urethra. (3,4)
What Does the Prostate Gland Actually Do?
The prostate gland isn't essential for life, but it is vital for reproduction and is part of the male reproductive system.
The function of the prostate is to produce a slightly alkaline (high pH) fluid — called the prostatic fluid — that makes up part of the seminal fluid, or semen.
The rest of semen is composed of sperm cells from the testicles, fluid from the seminal vesicles, and secretions from the pea-sized bulbourethral gland.
The prostatic fluid contains substances that are important to the functioning and survival of sperm cells, such as the enzyme prostate-specific antigen (PSA), which thins or loosens up semen, helping the tadpole-like sperm cells swim freely to reach the egg.
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Other important components of prostatic fluid include an enzyme called prostatic acid phosphatase, citric acid, zinc, spermine (which plays a vital role in cellular metabolism) and prostatic inhibin (a protein involved in cell growth regulation). (5)
During an orgasm, prostate muscles squeeze the gland's stored fluid into the urethra, where it mixes with the sperm cells and other semen components.
This expulsive process also helps propel the semen out of the body during ejaculation. (3)
Prostatitis: A Common Prostate Problem in Younger Men
Prostatitis, or prostate inflammation, is the most common prostatic and urinary tract problem for men under age 50, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). It accounts for 2 million doctor visits in the United States each year. (8)
There are several types of prostatitis.
Prostatitis caused by bacteria is known as bacterial prostatitis, and it can cause an acute (short term) or chronic infection.
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Nonbacteria microbes may cause a different type of chronic prostatitis, known as chronic pelvic pain syndrome, which may also develop as a result of chemicals in the urine, a urinary tract infection, or pelvic nerve damage.
Affecting 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. male population, chronic pelvic pain syndrome is the most common type of prostatitis, but also the least understood.
Symptoms vary depending on the type of prostatitis, but can include urination problems, pain (from the perineum to the penis and scrotum to the central lower abdomen and lower back), fever, and body aches, among other things.
Some people develop asymptomatic inflammatory prostatitis, in which the prostate is inflamed but doesn't produce any symptoms or require treatment.
Bacterial prostatitis is most often treated with antibiotics. Chronic pelvic pain syndrome may require drugs, surgery, and lifestyle changes.
Over time, prostatitis may cause sexual dysfunction, abscesses in the prostate, inflammation of nearby reproductive organs, and infection of the bloodstream. (8,9)
Learn More About Prostate Problems and Complications
Prostate Cancer: Risk Factors, Symptoms, and Treatment
Aside from prostatitis and BPH, another common prostate issue is prostate cancer.
Excluding skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common type of cancer among American men, according to the American Cancer Society. About 1 in 9 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime.
The risk of developing prostate cancer is higher for men who are over age 65, are African-American, or have a family history of the disease. (12)
Most often, prostate cancer develops slowly, but some men develop an aggressive form of the disease.
Early prostate cancer generally doesn't cause any symptoms. Symptoms generally develop as the disease progresses and include:
- Urination issues
- Erectile dysfunction
- Bloody semen
- Bone pain (particularly the hips, spine, and ribs)
- Numbness of the legs and feet
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
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But most of these symptoms can also be caused by other problems.
Primary treatment options include surgery, radiation therapy, and hormone therapy.
Prostate cancer has a high 5- to 15-year survival rate, though the disease can often be deadly if it spreads to distant lymph nodes, bones, or other organs. It is still the second leading cause of cancer death in American men (behind lung cancer).(12,13)
Learn More About Prostate Cancer
Resources and Support for Maintaining a Healthy Prostate
If you’re having prostate trouble, you’re concerned about a friend or family member who is, or you’d like to stay up to date on prostate health and research, there are a number of organizations that provide online educational material, comprehensive medical information, emotional support, and avenues for financial assistance.
Learn More About Resources for Prostate Health