What is balanitis?

Poor hygiene of the penis is one of the most common causes of balanitis. It can be treated with antibiotic cream and pills and usually clears up within three to five days of starting treatment.
Poor hygiene of the penis is one of the most common causes of balanitis. It can be treated with antibiotic cream and pills and usually clears up within three to five days of starting treatment.

Balanitis is a condition where a man’s glans penis, or head of the penis, becomes inflamed. Balanitis generally appears only in men or boys who are not circumcised and affects one in 30 uncircumcised males. Balanitis occurs when yeast and bacteria form in the folds of skin around the foreskin and develop into an infection. The infection then causes redness, swelling, and pain.

Uncircumcised men 45 and older may develop balanitis due to skin conditions, weight issues, diabetes, or sexual activity. Boys ages 4 and younger who are uncircumcised might develop balanitis if their genital areas are not adequately cleaned.

Balanitis generally is not a serious condition and can be treated with antibiotic creams and pills. Most occurrences of balanitis clear up within three to five days of starting treatment. Left untreated, however, it can become more painful or cause other health problems.

If you or your child is uncircumcised, it is essential to recognize the symptoms and causes of balanitis so that you can help prevent it.

Signs and symptoms of balanitis

There are many signs that you might have balanitis. You might experience:

  • Swelling of the glans (the head of your penis)
  • Pain in the glans and surrounding area
  • Itching around the affected area
  • Discharge
  • An unnatural smell
  • Sores on your glans penis
  • Problems pulling back your foreskin
  • Bleeding and cracking on your foreskin

Left untreated, balanitis can cause painful complications. You might experience a backflow of urine toward one of your kidneys due to a narrowing of the tube (the distal urethra) that carries urine out of your penis. You may also begin to retain urine or experience a lack of blood flow to your penis, both of which can cause pain and other health problems

Types of balanitis

Balanitis has three known types:

  • Zoon's
    • The most common type of balanitis, Zoon's generally affects middle-aged men who were not circumcised. 
  • Circinate
    • This is the result of a type of arthritis and is characterized by sores, swelling, or redness on the head of your penis.
  • Pseudoepitheliomatous keratotic and micaceous balanitis
    • This is a rare type of balanitis that affects men over 60 and is identified by scaly warts that form on the glans.

Causes of balanitis

Poor hygiene is one of the most common causes of balanitis. The foreskin on uncircumcised men is a warm and damp area. If the skin is not washed correctly, yeast and bacteria may form between the layers of skin. These microorganisms can cause an infection, which leads to inflammation of the foreskin and glans.

You might also be at risk of developing balanitis if you:

Some prescription drugs can cause balanitis as a side effect, specifically medicines used to treat Type 2 diabetes.

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When to see the doctor for balanitis

When it comes to your most sensitive areas, it helps to be cautious. If you experience any symptoms of balanitis, you might want to see your doctor immediately. If you see your doctor in the early stages of balanitis, they can help you eliminate it before it develops into a more painful problem.

A few other conditions cause symptoms similar to balanitis, so it can be difficult to diagnose. A trip to your doctor is the only way to know for sure that you have balanitis. Your doctor will conduct a physical exam and run some tests to determine if you have it, as well as noting the type and cause of it.

Diagnosing balanitis

To figure out whether you have balanitis, your doctor will collect samples from any discharge, test you for STDs, and take blood samples to screen you for diabetes or other medical conditions that might be causing it.

Treatments for balanitis

To treat balanitis, your doctor will most likely prescribe antibiotics (as a pill or cream) or an antifungal lotion. If a skin condition or allergic reaction is causing balanitis, they might give you a steroid cream. 

Sometimes, balanitis can continue coming back, which is known as recurring balanitis. As a last resort, your doctor might decide you need a circumcision to alleviate the condition. 

Prevention is always better than treatment. If you're uncircumcised, take extra care to thoroughly clean your genital area with mild soap and warm water. Make sure you dry the area completely. Work to make cleaning and drying your foreskin and penis a daily routine. 

When having sex, use a condom, and wash thoroughly when you finish and make sure everything is dry. If you have any symptoms of balanitis, try not to engage in sexual activity. Adding the friction and fluid exchanges of sex can make the condition worse. 

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Medically Reviewed on 12/8/2020
References
Harvard Medical School: "Balanitis."

International Journal of Preventive Medicine: "Penile Inflammatory Skin Disorders and the Preventive Role of Circumcision."

Wray, A., Velasquez, J., Khetarpal, S. Balanitis, StatPearls Publishing LLC, 2020.