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Foreskins and Circumcision

The foreskin is the fold of skin that covers the head of the penis when it is soft. Learn about reasons for circumcision and how to tell if something is wrong with your foreskin.

The foreskin is the fold of skin that covers the head of the penis when it is soft. When the penis is hard, the foreskin moves back, so the head of the penis is exposed. Some people have a foreskin long enough to cover the head of their penis even during an erection.

Some people have their foreskin removed, often as babies. This surgical removal of some or all of the foreskin is called circumcision. There are two main reasons circumcisions are carried out: 

  • Religious or cultural reasons – it’s a common practice in Jewish and Islamic communities, in many African communities, and in the USA. Most cultural circumcisions are carried out in young boys.
  • Medical reasons – for example, as a treatment of last resort for conditions such as a tight foreskin (phimosis) or recurrent infection of the foreskin and head of the penis (balanitis)

Tight foreskin

Some people find that they have a tight foreskin, which does not easily roll back over the head of the penis when they have an erection. This can feel really uncomfortable.

The foreskin being too tight is known as phimosis and unless it causes symptoms this isn’t usually a problem. If it does cause symptoms these can include;

  • redness
  • swelling
  • discharge
  • balanitis (inflammation of the head of the penis or ‘glans’)
  • balanoposthitis (where both the glans and the foreskin are inflamed).

A tight foreskin can also be associated with sexually transmitted infections or other skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis.

If you have any swelling, discharge, or redness, or are worried you should seek advice from a doctor or nurse. Balanitis and balanoposthitis can be treated with a combination of good hygiene and antibiotics/antifungal cream depending on the cause of the infection. Steroid creams can be prescribed to help with a tight foreskin, and in some cases surgery may be considered to remove the foreskin.

Seek help

If you are unable to pull your foreskin back, you should seek medical advice. If you can pull your foreskin back and it gets stuck and won’t retract (paraphimosis) you should go to A&E.

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