Tight foreskin (phimosis and paraphimosis)
Phimosis is where the foreskin is too tight to be pulled back over the head of the penis (glans). Phimosis is normal in babies and toddlers. It isn't usually a problem unless it causes the symptoms described. Take your child to your GP if they have these symptoms.
About phimosis and paraphimosis
In older children, phimosis may be the result of a skin condition that has caused scarring.
In adults, phimosis can occasionally be linked to sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Immediate treatment is needed in cases where it causes problems such as difficulty urinating (peeing), see symptoms below.
Paraphimosis is where the foreskin can't be returned to its original position after being retracted (pulled back).
Symptoms of phimosis and paraphimosis
Phimosis isn't usually a problem unless it causes symptoms.
- difficulty urinating (peeing), if the opening blocks the flow of urine (pee) - this may cause the foreskin to balloon during urination
If your child's glans is sore and inflamed, they may have balanitis. This is an inflammation of the head of the penis.
There may also be a thick discharge underneath the foreskin. If both the glans and foreskin are inflamed, it's known as balanoposthitis.
Paraphimosis causes the glans (end of the penis) to become painful and swollen. It blocks the flow of blood in the penis.
It requires emergency medical treatment to avoid serious complications.
These complications include:
- increased pain
- restricted blood flow to the penis
In severe cases of paraphimosis, circumcision may be recommended.
In very severe cases, a lack of blood flow to the penis can cause tissue death (gangrene) and surgical removal of the penis may be necessary.
When to see your GP
Take your child to see your GP if they have the symptoms of phimosis and balanitis above.
Your GP will be able to discuss treatment options with you. Most cases of balanitis can be managed without surgery. Management includes using a combination of good hygiene, creams or ointments, and avoiding substances that irritate the penis.
Balanoposthitis can also sometimes be treated by simple hygiene measures such as keeping the penis clean by regularly washing it with water and a mild soap or moisturiser.
If balanoposthitis is caused by a fungal or bacterial infection, an antifungal cream or a course of antibiotics may be needed.
Causes of phimosis
In adults, phimosis can occasionally be associated with sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
It can also be caused by a number of different skin conditions, including:
- eczema – a long-term condition that causes the skin to become itchy, red, dry and cracked
- psoriasis – a skin condition that causes red, flaky, crusty patches of skin covered with silvery scales
- lichen planus – a non-infectious itchy rash that can affect many areas of the body
- lichen sclerosus – a scarring condition of the foreskin (and sometimes glans) that's probably caused by urinary irritation in susceptible men and boys
Phimosis can cause pain, skin splitting, or a lack of sensation during sex.
Using a condom and lubricants while having sex may make your penis more comfortable.
When surgery may be needed
Surgery may be needed if a child or adult has severe or persistent balanitis or balanoposthitis that causes their foreskin to be painfully tight. Paraphimosis may also require surgical treatment.
The health professional looking after you or your child will discuss the treatment options with you.
It's important to clean your penis regularly to avoid problems developing.
- gently wash your penis with warm water each day while having a bath or showering
- gently pull back your foreskin (if you have one) and wash underneath; don't pull back the foreskin of a baby or young boy because it could be painful and cause harm
- use a mild or non-perfumed soap (if you choose to use soap) to reduce the risk of skin irritation
- avoid using talc and deodorants on your penis as they may cause irritation
- circumcised men should also regularly clean their penis with warm water and a mild soap (if you choose to use soap)
More useful links
The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.
For further information see terms and conditions.