Balanitis FAQs

Painful, sore and itchy, balanitis is not nice but can be treated easily.
Photograph of a penis with balanitis
What is it?

An unpleasant, irritating but seldom serious inflammation of the head of the penis.

What are the main symptoms?
  • The head of your penis (glans) is inflamed — red, sore and itchy.
  • White or red blotches or lumps may appear.
  • The glans may also look shiny or waxy.
  • In severe cases it may also be swollen.
  • The foreskin may become pale and thickened and stick to the glans (known as balanitis xerotica obliterans)..
  • A foul-smelling discharge.
What's the risk?

Balanitis is a common condition in uncircumcised men and is usually associated with poor hygiene. It is unusual in circumcised men.

What causes it?
  • Poor personal hygiene: if you don't wash under the foreskin, a cheesy substance called smegma accumulates. This can become infected and cause irritation. This problem is more likely to occur when the foreskin is too tight to allow it to be retracted over the end of the penis to enable the glans to be washed thoroughly.
  • Thrush (candida): a milder form of balanitis is caused by an allergy to thrush in a woman's vagina.
  • Psoriasis: this skin disease can occur on the penis without you having it anywhere else. On the glans it looks red and shiny, while elsewhere it is usually white and scaly.
  • Irritation: balanitis can sometimes be caused by sensitivity to perfumes in soaps and detergents.
  • Bacterial infection: streptococcal bacteria in a woman's vagina can be transmitted during sexual intercourse.
  • Rough handling: strenuous sexual activity, particularly masturbation, can make the penis sore and prone to infection.
  • Allergy: some men are allergic to rubber, spermicides, deodorants and topical medications (those applied to the skin).
  • Medication: some drugs, such as penicillin, can cause balanitis.
  • Diabetes: disturbs your blood sugar level which can lead to an ideal environment for bacteria to grow which in turn can cause your penis to become inflamed
How can I prevent it?

Your best bet is to wash your penis thoroughly every day, especially if you are uncircumcised.

Should I see a doctor?

You should see your doctor, not least because severe balanitis can be a sign of diabetes, a serious illness that needs to be treated as soon as possible. You also need to be sure that the problem hasn't been caused by a sexually transmitted infection which produces similar symptoms. 

What are the main treatments?
  • If your balanitis is caused by thrush, an anti-fungal treatment can help.
  • Antibiotics can clear up balanitis caused by bacterial infections.
  • If it is caused by psoriasis, your doctor can prescribe a steroid cream.
  • Your doctor can arrange a test to identify the cause of your allergy.
  • If the problem is recurrent, and due to a tight foreskin, then circumcision may be advised.
How can I help myself?
  • Use a mild, unperfumed soap.
  • Put two handfuls of salt in the bath, but nothing else such as bubble bath, bath oils, or disinfectants
  • Wash your underwear with non-biological washing powder or liquid.
  • Heterosexual men should ask their partners to visit a doctor or a genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic to check whether they have thrush. 
What's the outlook?

Balanitis is usually mild. Once the cause has been identified, it can usually be cleared up easily.

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Date published 07/04/14
Date of last review 07/04/14
Date of next review 07/04/17


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