Sexual Health Q&A

What is phimosis?

In uncircumcised men and boys, a foreskin covers the head of the penis. Typically, the foreskin can be pulled back when needed. When the foreskin can’t be pulled back, this is called phimosis.

When a man has phimosis, it may look like there is a tight ring around the tip of his penis. The area may be swollen and red and he might have trouble urinating.

Phimosis is a common condition. There are two types:

Physiologic phimosis is the normal state for a newborn male. As boys grow older, their foreskin becomes retractable. Usually this occurs by age 7, but sometimes it takes a few more years.

Pathologic phimosis is the result of infection, inflammation, or scarring.

Pathologic phimosis is sometimes caused by poor hygiene. If a man or boy does not wash the area thoroughly and consistently, he may develop an infection, such as posthitis (inflammation of the foreskin) or balanitis (inflammation of the glans penis). Sometimes these two infections occur together.

Medical conditions like diabetes can make men more susceptible to these infections and, consequently, phimosis.

Phimosis is sometimes treated with a topical ointment applied to the penis. More serious cases may require surgery. 

Complications of phimosis include bleeding, infections, difficult or painful urination, and painful erections.

Sometimes paraphimosis, a condition in which the foreskin stays retracted and can’t be pulled forward, occurs as well.

Phimosis should not be ignored if it is bothersome. Over time, the ring can become tighter and more difficult to treat.