Balanitis is swelling of the foreskin, or head of the penis. Balanitis affects roughly 1 in 20 males.
Balanitis largely occurs in uncircumcised men. It can be painful, but it typically isn’t serious. It often can be relieved by using topical medication.
What causes balanitis to develop?
Balanitis is inflammation typically caused by infections or chronic skin conditions. Improper hygiene can contribute to skin irritation. Both inadequate cleansing and too much cleansing can add to this problem. The condition is often caused by an overgrowth of either bacteria or yeast. The foreskin of the penis is an ideal place for these organisms to grow because it can trap moisture around the penis head.
Injuries on the tip of the penis or foreskin can cause swelling and discomfort.
Irritation in the area can also cause balanitis. Irritation can be caused by:
- not rinsing soap completely off of your penis after showering
- using scented soaps to clean your penis
- using bar soap that dries out the skin
- using scented lotions or sprays on your penis
Some laxatives, sleeping pills, painkillers, and antibiotics can cause balanitis as a side effect. This is called a fixed drug eruption.
Other causes of balanitis include:
- reactive arthritis
- uncontrolled diabetes
- sexually transmitted infections like syphilis, trichomonas, and gonorrhea
Symptoms of balanitis
Swelling and redness of the foreskin may indicate balanitis. Other symptoms may include:
- tightened foreskin
- itchy genitals
- pain in the genital area
- painful skin on the penis
Balanitis can usually be diagnosed during a physical examination because most of its symptoms are visible. If you have discharge, your doctor may take a sample of it with a cotton swab or collect a urine sample. They will check it for the presence of bacterial or fungal cells. This helps determine the cause of the balanitis.
When the cause of balanitis is a chronic skin condition, your doctor may perform a biopsy. For a biopsy, your doctor removes a small piece of tissue from the penis in order to examine it for disease. You’ll be given local anesthesia before the doctor collects the sample.
Discontinue the use of all perfumed soaps, lotions, or powders, as they are often are a cause of foreskin irritation. Use only warm water for cleansing.
After a diagnosis, your doctor will likely prescribe a medicated anti-itch cream. This cream helps stop itching and inflammation.
If you have an infection, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic or antifungal medication to help clear it. This may be all you need to stop the inflammation, swelling, itching, and discharge.
Your doctor may also prescribe medicated creams with steroids to reduce inflammation.
You can try treating balanitis yourself with a mixture of diluted vinegar and Burow’s solution applied to the area with a compress. This mixture acts as an astringent. Astringents cause the skin to contract, which helps relieve irritation.
Topical steroids that contain hydrocortisone can also be helpful.
If you’re trying over-the-counter treatments, do not use them longer than two weeks. If you are not improving, see your doctor for evaluation. It’s important to make sure you do not have a more serious health problem.
Complications of balanitis
Seek treatment quickly to reduce your chances of developing complications from balanitis. Possible complications include:
- scarring in the penis opening
- painful foreskin retraction
- inadequate blood supply to the penis
Allergic dermatitis can be a cause of balanitis that involves extreme itching, rash, hives, and inflamed skin. This inflammation 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’s foreskins do not retract even after treatment. This condition is known as phimosis. Phimosis doesn’t result from acute balanitis, but from long-standing (chronic) balanitis.
In some cases, untreated phimosis requires surgery. Surgeries can involve cutting a slit along the top of the foreskin to separate it from the penis. Other surgeries require circumcision, the complete removal of the foreskin. The earlier you address balanitis, the better your outlook will be.
How to prevent balanitis
Preventing balanitis is as easy as practicing proper hygiene. Shower every day, especially after you sweat or engage in sexual intercourse. You can also prevent balanitis by:
- avoiding the use of perfumed or deodorizing products on your penis
- completely drying the penis after you shower
Balanitis symptoms may only last a few days if you address them as soon as you recognize them. Long periods of balanitis may be a cause for concern. These longer cases can usually be shortened with prescribed medications or an over-the-counter treatment. But proper diagnosis is important.
Most cases of balanitis can be resolved with improved hygiene and the use of topical medications.