The Urethral Microbiota of Men with and without Idiopathic Urethritis

mBio. 2022 Oct 26;13(5):e0221322. doi: 10.1128/mbio.02213-22. Epub 2022 Oct 3.


Nongonococcal urethritis (NGU) is a common genital tract syndrome in men, and up to 50% of cases are considered idiopathic, i.e., no etiological agent is identified. This poses challenges for clinicians in the diagnosis and treatment of NGU and often results in antibiotic misuse and overuse. Therefore, to identify potential infectious causes of urethritis and inform clinical management of urethritis cases, we characterized and compared the urethral microbiota of men with and without idiopathic urethritis. Participants were derived from a case-control study that examined viral and bacterial pathogens and sexual practices associated with NGU. Men with NGU who tested negative for established causes of NGU (Chlamydia trachomatis, Mycoplasma genitalium, Trichomonas vaginalis, adenoviruses, herpes simplex virus [HSV]-1, and/or HSV-2) were classified as idiopathic cases, and the controls were men reporting no current urethral symptoms. Men provided a urine sample that was used to characterize the urethral microbiota using 16S rRNA gene sequencing. Bacterial taxa associated with idiopathic urethritis were identified using analysis of compositions of microbiomes with bias correction. When stratified by sex of sexual partner, we found that the abundance of Haemophilus influenzae was significantly increased in men who have sex with men with idiopathic urethritis, and the abundance of Corynebacterium was significantly increased in men who have sex with women with idiopathic urethritis. Other taxa, including Ureaplasma, Staphylococcus haemolyticus, Streptococcus pyogenes, Escherichia, and Streptococcus pneumoniae/pseudopneumoniae, dominated the urethral microbiota of idiopathic urethritis cases but not controls, suggesting that these organisms may also contribute to urethritis. Importantly, the taxa we identified represent biologically plausible causes of urethritis and should be prioritized for future study. IMPORTANCE Nongonococcal urethritis (NGU) is the commonest genital tract syndrome in men and is nearly universally presumptively treated with an antibiotic. Common causes of NGU include Chlamydia trachomatis and Mycoplasma genitalium, but in more than 50% of cases, an infectious cause is not identified. In this case-control study, we found that the urethral microbiota composition differed between men with and without idiopathic urethritis and differed by sex of sexual partner. We identified specific bacterial taxa that were associated with idiopathic urethritis, including Haemophilus influenzae and Corynebacterium. These data, together with the finding that key bacterial taxa were found to dominate the urethral microbiota of cases but not controls, suggest that a range of bacteria contribute to urethritis and that these organisms may be influenced by sexual practices. Through identifying the infectious causes of urethritis, we can inform appropriate targeted diagnostic and treatment practices and importantly reduce misuse and overuse of antibiotics.

Keywords: Corynebacterium; Haemophilus influenzae; idiopathic urethritis; nongonococcal urethritis; sexually transmitted diseases; urethral microbiome; urethral microbiota.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Chlamydia trachomatis / genetics
  • Female
  • Herpesvirus 1, Human* / genetics
  • Homosexuality, Male
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Microbiota*
  • Mycoplasma genitalium* / genetics
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S
  • Sexual and Gender Minorities*
  • Urethritis* / microbiology


  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents