What is penis irritation?
Penis irritation may refer to itchiness (pruritus), redness, swelling (inflammation), tingling, pain, soreness, discomfort or other symptoms in, on or around the skin of your penis. Penis irritation may occur on the glans (head) of the penis, the foreskin, or elsewhere. Boys experience penis irritation as well as men.
Penis irritation can be caused by a range of medical conditions, such as a fungal infection, dermatitis (eczema), psoriasis, or certain sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Irritation can also occur after certain activities like sexual intercourse.
Identifying the cause of discomfort is the first step towards finding the right treatment.
What are the signs of penis irritation?
Depending on the cause, signs of penis irritation may include:
- Redness, itching, discomfort, flaking of skin, swelling or soreness on the head of the penis
- Redness or swelling on the foreskin
- Discharge from the penis
- Pain when urinating (for example, with phimosis, a condition where your foreskin is too tight)
What causes penis irritation?
Penis irritation can be due to either medical or non-medical causes. Your doctor can help you to work out the exact cause, and suggest an appropriate treatment.
Balanitis is a term to describe inflammation of the head of the penis. It’s a very common cause of penis irritation and can affect males at any age. Balanitis can be caused by bacterial or fungal infections, chemicals, viruses or allergies. It can also occur when the inside of your foreskin isn’t kept clean. If you’ve been diagnosed with balanitis before but it keeps coming back, ask your doctor to test for any underlying conditions that may be causing it, such as diabetes.
Yeast infection (candidiasis)
The area under the foreskin of the penis is warm and moist, which provides conditions that help organisms grow. Candida albicans is a common fungus that is normally present under the foreskin — but too much of it can cause penis irritation. Yeast infections like candidiasis tend to occur more frequently in males who have a foreskin (those who haven’t been circumcised).
Non-infectious skin conditions
Penis irritation can sometimes be due to psoriasis, a condition that causes red scaly skin to appear anywhere on the body, including the groin area. A persistent rash may be a sign of psoriasis. Other non-infectious conditions that may cause penis irritation include eczema and lichen sclerosus (a rare immune-related disease).
Urinary tract infection (UTI)
Sexually transmitted infections
If you’re sexually active, penis irritation could be a sign of an STI such as genital herpes, syphilis, chlamydia or gonorrhoea. If you suspect a possible STI, avoid sexual contact and see a doctor to find out the exact cause of your penis irritation. Tell any sexual partners so they can also be examined and treated, if necessary.
Penis irritation can also be caused by:
- friction from sexual activity
- a skin reaction to latex in condoms
- household chemicals found in soap, clothing, washing powder
- a 'drug eruption' where medicine you’re taking causes ulcers to appear on the penis
- allergies to certain medicines or substances
In boys, possible causes of penis irritation include:
- too much contact with wet or soiled nappies
- nappy rash in infants
- residue from soap
- physical trauma from forcibly retracting their foreskin
How is penis irritation treated?
Treatment for penis irritation vary, depending on the underlying cause.
Care at home
Here are some ideas for treatment at home.
- Soak and wash the affected areas of the penis, including inside your foreskin, with warm water.
- After washing and going to the toilet, clean and dry the head of your penis.
- Washing with salt water may help to soothe any itching or discomfort.
- Pain relievers can also help with soreness and discomfort.
- Use barrier cream for any irritation due to nappy rash.
- When cleaning, don’t forcibly retract their foreskin, as this may cause other problems such as paraphimosis (when the foreskin is retracted and can’t be moved back to its usual position).
See your doctor if the penis irritation doesn’t resolve, or if you’re concerned about what may be causing it.
A fungal infection such as candidiasis will usually respond quickly to antifungal cream. This can sometimes be combined with a mild cortisone cream or ointment, and is available with a doctor’s prescription.
If your doctor suspects an allergic reaction, you may need further tests to find the exact cause. Other causes of penis irritation may need specific treatment from your doctor.
Can I prevent penis irritation?
Penis irritation may be a cue to reconsider some of your daily habits. In most cases, it’s possible to prevent irritation. Here are some ideas.
Practice good genital hygiene by washing regularly, while also being careful to avoid over-washing. You can do this when you shower by:
- carefully pulling back the foreskin
- cleaning the foreskin and head of the penis with warm water and soap free wash
- drying the area with air, a fan or low heat (avoid rubbing)
Try to avoid soap or shower gel (you could try soap free options — ask your pharmacist for a recommendation). Washing after sex also helps to decrease the chance of penis irritation.
Nappy rash can cause redness and pain in your child’s penis. You can prevent irritation by:
- changing wet or dirty nappies promptly
- leaving your child without nappies for short periods of time (fresh air helps prevent nappy rash)
- soaking skin in a warm bath, and drying thoroughly afterwards
- applying barrier or nappy-rash cream after each change, including on the tip of the penis
- avoiding the use of nappy wipes on the penis
Other preventive measures
- Wash your hands before and after using the toilet.
- If you’re sexually active, try hypoallergenic condoms designed for people with sensitive skin.
- Avoid any products you know cause skin irritation.
- Getting the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination before being sexually active can help reduce the likelihood of certain types of genital disease and help prevent penile cancer later in life.
Are there complications of penis irritation?
Most cases of penis irritation can be resolved with good hygiene and avoiding anything that may irritate genital skin. However, there are a few possible complications to watch out for.
Sexually transmitted infections
Penis irritation — particularly a rash or discharge — may be a sign of an STI. Tell any sexual partners so they can also be examined and treated, if necessary. It’s best to avoid any sexual contact with others until you have seen a doctor and the infection has cleared.
If you have a problem with recurring penis irritation, ask your doctor about a test for diabetes. Balanitis can be a sign of increased sugar in your urine, which may be encouraging bacterial or fungal growth under your foreskin.
In very rare cases, a persistent ulcer or a slowly growing lump on the head of the penis could be an early sign of penile cancer. Your doctor or a specialist dermatologist can check whether the irritation is a sign of something more serious.
Should I see my doctor?
CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.
The Symptom Checker, above, guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self-care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).
ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.
Use the healthdirect online Question Builder tool, above, to help prepare for your medical appointment by creating a list of questions to ask your doctor.
Resources and support
For more information and support, try these resources:
- Healthy Male offers readable guides to foreskin pain and other men’s health issues.
- The Kids Health Info app has fact sheets about penis and foreskin care and a range of other topics provided by the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne.
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Last reviewed: July 2020