Pearly penile papules, also known as hirsutoid papillomas, are small, skin-colored bumps that form around the head of the penis. While they may seem alarming, they are harmless and tend to fade in appearance as you age.

A papule is a raised, pimple-like growth on the skin that does not produce pus. This condition is seen in 8 to 43 percent of men. The papules usually appear after puberty, and are more common in men who have not been circumcised. However, they can appear on any male.

Pearly penile papules do not cause any symptoms, and once they develop, they don’t spread or change much in size or shape. They are neither contagious nor painful. Hirsutoid papillomas can be identified by several characteristics:

  • They are smooth.
  • They look like tiny bumps or threads.
  • They measure 1 to 4 millimeters in diameter.
  • They form one or two rows around the base of the glans penis (the rounded head of the penis).

There are other similar conditions, such as Fordyce spots. These are also harmless papules. But rather than appear in one or two rows around the base of the glans penis, Fordyce spots may appear more scattered and could present as one or 100 bumps.

If you ever notice any bumps, discoloration, or other unusual feature develop on or around your genitals, see a doctor to get a diagnosis. Some changes, such as pearly penile papules, are completely benign. But any change can cause some anxiety, so don’t hesitate to get checked out. A urologist is a doctor who specializes in the health of the male reproductive organs and in conditions affecting the male or female urinary system. However, going to your primary care doctor is often a good first step.

Pearly penile papules are sometimes mistakenly thought to be signs of a sexually transmitted disease or of poor hygiene. The condition does not appear to have any outside source. It is not the result of an infection or other underlying cause. The bumps are not malignant or premalignant.

The American Urological Association suggests that the papules may be left over from a man’s embryonic development in the womb. While the exact cause isn’t known, health experts agree that pearly penile papules are a normal anatomic condition.

Once pearly penile papules are properly diagnosed, no treatment is necessary. The diagnosis can usually be made simply by examining their appearance. It shouldn’t be difficult to distinguish pearly penile papules from other skin conditions, such as viral warts. If there is any concern that the bumps may be a threat, some tissue can be biopsied to confirm a diagnosis.

Though no intervention is medically necessary, there are treatments available for hirsutoid papillomas. If the condition triggers considerable psychological distress, you have options.

  • Carbon dioxide laser surgery: Precise carbon dioxide lasers produce infrared energy that can dissolve the papules. This procedure is generally safe and effective.
  • Radiosurgery: Targeted radiation creates free radicals, which are molecules that can damage healthy cells. The free radicals attack the cells of the papules, causing them to fade away. While accurate, radiosurgery isn’t any more accurate or effective than carbon dioxide laser surgery.
  • Cryosurgery: This procedure uses extreme cold to freeze the papules so they will disappear.
  • Excisional surgery: A surgeon uses traditional tools, such as a scalpel, to remove each papule individually. This approach is more likely than the others to cause scarring.

All surgical procedures come with risks and benefits. Before undergoing any operation, be sure you have a full understanding of what’s involved and what your recovery will be like.

You may be tempted to try over-the-counter topical ointments or home remedies, such as scrubbing the papules with toothpaste or lemon juice. Before attempting any of these treatments, talk with your doctor.

There is no way to prevent pearly penile papules. They are not brought on by any lifestyle choices you make. Though they are more common among men who aren’t circumcised, there is no guarantee that circumcision will prevent the bumps from appearing one day.

Pearly penile papules shouldn’t interfere with your health or affect activities such as intercourse. As you get older, the papules will probably fade.

If you feel the need to at least explore treatments to remove them, talk with a urologist. Likewise, if you notice any other changes to your penis or symptoms such as painful urination or erectile dysfunction, see a urologist. These developments aren’t likely to be related to pearly penile papules, but it’s important to be proactive when it comes to any health issue, even one that may be awkward to discuss at first.