Balanitis is swelling of the foreskin or head of the penis. According to the National Health Service UK, balanitis is a common condition that affects an estimated one in 20 males. It also accounts for one in 10 cases of visits to a sexual health clinic or urology clinic by adult men (NHS).
Balanitis is a condition that largely occurs in uncircumcised men. Balanitis can be a painful condition, but it isn’t a serious one. It can usually be relieved using topical medication.
The main cause of balanitis is poor hygiene. Poor hygiene causes harmful bacteria to overpopulate the area, which can lead to infection. The foreskin of the penis is an ideal place for bacteria to grow.
Injuries on the tip of the penis or foreskin can also cause swelling.
Irritation in the area can also cause balanitis. Irritation can arise from:
- not rinsing soap completely off of your penis after showering
- using scented soaps to clean the penis
- using bar soap that dries out the skin
- using scented lotions or sprays on the penis
Some medications like laxatives, sleeping pills, painkillers, and antibiotics can cause balanitis as a side effect. This is called a fixed drug eruption.
Less common causes of balanitis include:
- reactive arthritis
- uncontrolled diabetes
- sexually transmitted diseases like herpes and gonorrhea
The most apparent signs of balanitis are swelling and a red appearance to the foreskin. Aside from redness and swelling, these symptoms may also be present:
- tightened foreskin
- itchy genitals
- pain in the genital area
- painful skin on the penis
If the tip of your penis is swollen, it can put pressure on your urethra. This can cause pain when urinating.
Since the majority of balanitis signs are visible, it can usually be diagnosed during a physical examination. If discharge is present, your doctor may take a sample of the discharge using a cotton swab. The sample is then checked for the presence of bacterial, viral, or fungal cells. The results will help determine what caused the balanitis.
In some cases, the cause isn’t immediately apparent, so you may need a more invasive test for diagnosis. One such test is a biopsy. Your doctor will remove a small piece of tissue from the penis for examination. The sample is checked for signs of a disease. You will be given local anesthesia before the doctor collects the sample.
Before applying any treatment option, it is important to avoid using irritants such as perfumed soap, lotion, or powder. This prevents further irritation of the foreskin.
After a diagnosis, you will likely be prescribed a medicated anti-itch cream. This cream works to stop the itching and inflammation. Instead of prescribing a medication, some doctors suggest using an over-the-counter cream to treat the area.
In case of an infection, you will be prescribed an antibiotic medication to help clear it. In some cases, this may be all that’s needed to stop the inflammation, swelling, itching, and discharge.
Medicated creams containing powerful steroids may also be prescribed to reduce inflammation.
The best way to reduce your chances of developing complications from balanitis is to seek treatment right away. Possible complications of balanitis include:
- scarring in the penis opening
- painful foreskin retraction
- inadequate blood supply to the penis
- allergic dermatitis (allergic skin reaction)
Allergic dermatitis symptoms such as extreme itching, rash, hives, and inflamed skin can lead to scarring. Scar tissue in the penis opening can cause the opening to narrow. This can lead to lasting discomfort and difficulty urinating.
Some men are unable to retract the foreskin; this condition is called phimosis. Phimosis is not a complication of acute balanitis, but it is a complication of long standing (chronic) balanitis.
There are several ways to prevent balanitis, including:
- practicing good hygiene
- avoiding the use of perfumed or deodorizing products on your penis
- completely drying the penis after you shower