Phimosis is the inability to pull the foreskin back over the head of the penis (glans).
The head of penis is covered by a tissue called the foreskin. The foreskin is usually loose and slides easily over the head of the penis. This movement allows the child to urinate or to become fully erect (in adolescents). Sometimes, though, the foreskin is too tight. It can close over the glans and become unable to move (Fig. 1). This condition is called phimosis.
What causes phimosis?
Phimosis is natural in very young male children. In older boys, it might be caused by damage or scarring. It is more likely to occur in boys with:
- Urinary tract infections that keep coming back
- Infections of the foreskin
- Repeated rough handling of the foreskin
- Trauma that affected the foreskin
How common is phimosis?
Phimosis affects only boys and is normal in infants and toddlers. If an infant’s foreskin has not been removed surgically (circumcision), it is attached to the glans for the first few years. The foreskin typically separates between ages 2 and 6. Forcing your child’s foreskin back can cause pain and damage. In most cases, it will detach naturally on its own.
Phimosis becomes less common with age. The foreskin can be pulled back behind the glans in about half of 1-year-old boys and in nearly 90% of 3-year-olds. Less than 1% of boys aged 16 – 18 years have phimosis.
Symptoms and diagnosis
Phimosis typically becomes a problem when symptoms occur. Symptoms include:
- Redness, soreness, or swelling of the foreskin
- Ballooning of the foreskin while urinating
- Inability to fully pull back the foreskin by age 3 or older
- Inflammation of the head of the penis
- Thick discharge under the foreskin
If your child has any of these symptoms, take him to see the doctor.
The diagnosis of phimosis is relatively simple. The doctor will do a physical exam, which consists of assessment of your child´s penis and testes. The doctor may ask some questions:
- How long have there been problems with the foreskin?
- Has the foreskin been red or sore?
- Does your child take any medication?
- Does your child have diabetes?
The doctor may ask parent(s) to be present or to help during the examination, particularly for younger children and infants.
Phimosis is not life threatening, but the symptoms are uncomfortable. Treatments include:
- Topical steroid for phimosis without scarring
- Surgical removal of the foreskin (circumcision)
Figure 3 shows the decision-making process for treating phimosis. If your child has scarring from an earlier injury, circumcision is needed. If no scarring is present, your child might be able to use a steroid cream or ointment to loosen the tight foreskin.
For boys who have phimosis without scarring, a steroid cream or ointment applied directly to the foreskin often works well. Your doctor will show you how to apply the ointment to the tight skin.
The ointment softens the foreskin when used every day for 4–8 weeks. Your doctor will also show you how to massage and manually stretch the foreskin. Once the foreskin can be pulled all the way back, use of the ointment can be stopped. This treatment has few or no side effects.
Sometimes treatment with a topical steroid does not work. In that case, the doctor may recommend circumcision.
Paraphimosis is an emergency that can happen only in uncircumcised boys. The tight foreskin is pulled back behind the head of the penis and becomes stuck (Fig. 6). It cannot be returned to its normal position. This leads to swelling of the head of the penis and the foreskin. In severe cases, blood cannot get to the head of the penis and can cause irreversible changes. Lack of oxygen and nutrients can lead to tissue necrosis, which is characterised as death of cells. In paraphimosis it can cause blackening and/or hardening of the head of the penis that can eventually lead to structural changes.
- Swelling at the penis tip when the foreskin is pulled back
- Penile pain
- Not being able to move the foreskin back over the head of the penis
- Discolouration at the tip of the penis (skin is dark red or bluish)
The doctor will gently press the swollen tissue of the penis and try to move the tightened foreskin over the head of the penis. If this does not work, your doctor might:
- Inject the foreskin with the enzyme hyaluronidase to try to loosen the foreskin
- Make a small surgical cut to loosen the foreskin
- Recommend an emergency circumcision
Living with phimosis
A tight foreskin (phimosis) results from the structure of the penis. It will not go away on its own, but it is not considered a problem unless symptoms occur. Cleaning under the foreskin will help prevent infection and keep the skin loose. If the foreskin becomes stuck and cannot be pulled back over the glans, contact your doctor immediately. If phimosis is treated with circumcision, the foreskin will be removed. No lingering effects are expected.