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Balanitis is the term used to describe swelling and inflammation which affects the head of the penis. It is an awkward and uncomfortable condition to have, but it is usually not due to something serious which will cause long-term effects. You should seek treatment quickly though if you do experience symptoms of balanitis. This condition can be caused by several things. It may be related to another condition which affects the penis such as phimosis, or it can be due to a bacterial or fungal infection, which may have been spread through sexual intercourse. Poor hygiene can also make balanitis an issue. Alternatively, using certain soaps or lotions when you do clean yourself could end up causing balanitis.

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What is Balanitis?

Balanitis refers to swelling and inflammation of the head of the penis. The condition typically affects uncircumcised men. While balanitis can be very uncomfortable and can cause embarrassment, it is usually not serious, but it’s important to identify the cause so an appointment with your GP (or an NHS doctor) is recommended.

Alternatively known as zoon balanitis, there are a range of potential culprits which can cause this uncomfortable condition. These include hygiene products, certain skin problems (particularly ones that affect the foreskin) and infections caused by bacteria or fungi. If you or a child of yours is experiencing symptoms of balanitis, then it’s usually straightforward to get treatment when the cause has been identified. But without identifying the causes properly and promptly, balanitis can be recurrent and could even lead to complications.

Balanitis symptoms

Swelling and redness of your foreskin are common signs of balanitis and the head of the penis may also be sore and itchy. Other potential symptoms (depending on the exact cause of your balanitis) can include the following:

  • Tightened foreskin
  • Discharge from under the foreskin
  • Bleeding around the foreskin
  • Difficulty pulling back the foreskin
  • An unpleasant smell from the penis
  • Pain when urinating (swelling of the tip of your penis can put pressure on your urethra)

Balanitis causes

Balanitis can affect babies, children, teenagers and adults and the reasons can vary. Certain infections and skin infections can be the culprit but the condition can also occur because the penis is not being washed properly. Practicing proper hygiene is often enough to avoid suffering balanitis, but too much cleansing and certain substances found in soaps, shower gels or condoms can irritate the skin and cause the condition as well.

Having a very tight foreskin (phimosis) can also cause symptoms of balanitis. This is more common at a young age and it can cause issues cleaning the penis properly since the foreskin can’t be pulled back properly.

Bacteria or yeast can also cause the symptoms of balanitis to occur. When this condition is caused by a fungal infection like thrush, it is sometimes referred to as candida balanitis.

If you have pain and/or swelling around the foreskin and head of your penis, then it’s worth checking if you have thrush. If your balanitis is caused by thrush, then it may have occurred due to having diabetes (potentially not yet diagnosed) and your current sugar levels in your body are high. If you’ve recently had sex, then your balanitis may be a sign of a sexually transmitted infection (STI) such as chlamydia or gonorrhoea.

What complications can balanitis cause?

Balanitis is usually not a serious condition, but it could lead to the development of complications if left untreated for too long. The potential complications can include the following:

  • Scarring around the opening of the penis
  • Inadequate blood supply to the penis
  • Painful foreskin retractions

Scarring can also occur if your balanitis is caused by allergic dermatitis. This condition can involve extreme itching, rashes, hives and inflamed skin.

Balanitis treatment

Because there are a variety of potential causes of balanitis, there are also a lot of different potential solutions. There is no single cure that suits all circumstances, but putting a stop to your balanitis symptoms will likely prove straightforward once you know the cause.

Washing your penis regularly (if you are not already) usually helps reduce and prevent symptoms from occurring. If you are using any perfumed soaps, lotions or powders on your penis while cleaning, then put a stop to using these, since they are often a cause of foreskin irritation. Just use warm water for cleansing this part of your body (dry gently after washing too).

Treatments which may be prescribed following a diagnosis of balanitis can include a medicated anti-itch cream, a cream or ointment with antifungal or mild steroid properties and possibly antibiotics too. It depends what symptoms you are experiencing and the specific cause of them. If you use condoms, then you may want to switch to ones designed for sensitive skin to prevent balanitis symptoms occurring.

If you have a baby/child who has balanitis and they are currently wearing nappies, then make sure you change nappies often to reduce symptoms and prevent more in the future.

How balanitis differs to balanoposthitis and phimosis

Balanitis is often confused with two other conditions called balanoposthitis and phimosis. Each one of these conditions affect the penis but in different parts of it. As mentioned earlier, balanitis typically refers to swelling/inflammation which affects the head of the penis. Phimosis is a condition which makes it difficult to retract the foreskin (usually because of how tight it is). Balanoposthitis is the term used when both the head of the penis and the foreskin are suffering from inflammation. It is possible that at least two of these three conditions can occur at the same time. Balanitis and phimosis can often both occur at the same time, with the latter capable of being both a symptom and a cause in many cases.