What is balanitis?
Approved by our clinical team
Noticed a rash on the tip (head) of the penis? You might have something called balanitis. This isn’t usually a serious condition, but it’s a good idea to see your GP so they can work out what’s causing your symptoms and offer you some treatment.
Read on to find out more about the causes and treatments for balanitis, and how you can avoid symptoms in the future.
Causes of balanitis
All penises produce a natural lubricant that helps keep the skin soft and moist. After a few days of not washing, a build-up of this lubricant leads to smegma. This is the yellow, greasy substance that can collect underneath the foreskin.
Smegma is a breeding ground for bacteria, and a build-up can lead to a rash, or in young boys to soreness and even swelling. Read our top tips for looking after your penis here.
Other causes of balanitis include:
- Phimosis, a condition where the foreskin is too tight to pull back, causing to a build-up of smegma underneath it
- Thrush, a yeast infection
- An STI that causes discharge, such as chlamydia or gonorrhoea
- Irritants like soap and shower gel
- High levels of sugar in your urine caused by diabetes, as this can lead to thrush
It’s worth noting that balanitis tends to be more common in boys under the age of four, because they naturally tend to have a tighter foreskin that’s more difficult to keep clean. It’s also more common in men who aren’t circumcised i.e. men who still have a foreskin.
Symptoms of balanitis
In adults, symptoms are usually mild: a blotchy rash of the tip (head) of the penis is the most common symptom. Sometimes the rash is itchy, or the area feels irritated and sore. In more extreme cases the tip of penis can become swollen.
You might also experience the following:
- Pain when urinating
- Thick discharge from under your foreskin
- An unpleasant smell
- Difficult pulling your foreskin back
Treatment for balanitis
Treatment for balanitis starts with diagnosis. If you have a rash on the head of the penis or it is red and swollen you should visit your GP or go to a sexual health clinic. Although you may feel more comfortable speaking to a doctor you already know, the advantage of going to a sexual health clinic is that you usually don’t need an appointment.
Normally the doctor or nurse can make a diagnosis by just having a look, but sometimes they will take a swab to check for an infection; they'll also ask some questions about your symptoms and medical history. You might also need some tests to work out if you have an infection or an underlying condition like diabetes that could be causing the problem.
Depending on the cause of your balanitis, you might be prescribed:
- Steroid cream or ointment
- Antifungal cream or ointment
- Antibiotics if the balanitis is due to an STI
You should also take care to keep your penis clean and dry while you’re recovering from your symptoms. Wash your hands before you touch your penis, and – if you’re going to have sex – wear a condom for sensitive skin.
In a more severe case where balanitis keeps returning and medication isn’t working, your doctor might recommend that you have surgery to remove your foreskin (circumcision).
How to prevent balanitis
One of the best ways to avoid getting balanitis is to keep your penis clean and dry and avoid any irritating substances.
It’s really important to wash your penis with warm water every day and clean underneath your foreskin. When you’re finished, dry your penis gently but thoroughly before you get dressed.
Other tips for avoiding balanitis include the following:
- Use condoms when you have sex with a new partner, or with anyone whose STI status isn’t clear.
- Avoid using soaps or shower gels on your penis as these can irritate the skin. Instead wash with plain water, or use a sensitive cleanser or gentle emollient.
For more advice about taking care of your penis, read this article: Dos and don’ts for looking after your penis.