Balanitis, or balanoposthitis, is inflammation of the head of the penis. The foreskin (the loose flap of skin that covers the head of the penis) is also often affected.

Balanitis is a common condition affecting both boys and men. It occurs more often in men who have not been circumcised.

Symptoms can include:

  • redness, swelling and soreness around the head of the penis or foreskin
  • a thick discharge under the foreskin
  • a rash on the penis
  • itchiness
  • an unpleasant odour
  • pain when urinating

Some people may also have a tight foreskin that will not retract (pull back). This is called phimosis.

When to seek medical advice

Balanitis is not usually serious, but it can be a sign of another condition, such as a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or thrush (a type of fungal infection).

It's therefore important to visit your GP or a local sexual health or genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic if you think you have balanitis.

You should also see your GP if your son has symptoms of balanitis.

Read more about diagnosing balanitis.

What causes balanitis?

Skin irritation is the most common cause of balanitis in boys. This can occur because it's not always possible to pull back the foreskin fully at this age, leading to a build-up of a cheesy-looking substance called smegma that can irritate the skin.

Irritation by smegma is also a common cause of balanitis in uncircumcised men if the penis is not kept clean.

Other causes of balanitis include:

In some cases, no cause can be found.

How balanitis is treated

Most cases of balanitis are easily managed with a combination of creams or ointments, good hygiene and avoiding substances that irritate the penis (see below).

This may include corticosteroid, antibiotic and antifungal creams and ointments, depending on what the underlying cause of the condition is.

These treatments will usually start to have an effect within a week and can be stopped after around two weeks, although in some people it does eventually come back after treatment.

A partial circumcision may sometimes be recommended for a small number of cases of recurring phimosis.

Read more about treating balanitis.

Preventing balanitis

You can reduce your chances of developing balanitis by:

  • avoiding potential irritants, such as soaps, bubble baths and latex condoms
  • keeping your penis clean – you should wash it with water every day
  • avoiding STIs – use condoms whenever you have sex and don't share sex toys

Babies and young children who still wear nappies should have their nappies changed regularly because the warm and moist conditions can increase their risk of balanitis.

Read more about preventing balanitis.

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