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The head of the penis (glans), at least part of which lies beneath the foreskin, is sensitive and the skin here may become inflamed. Foreskin tightness in adults may also predispose to bacterial infection.

The most common cause of irritation of the glans is excessive hygiene. If the genitals are washed with soap and/or washed several times a day, the normal bacterial flora of the glans will be affected, increasing the risk of developing dry skin, irritation symptoms and rash. The penis should not be washed with soap or cleansing products. 

Eczema seborrhoicum (seborrheic dermatitis) commonly affects the glans. It is due to heavy secretion from the sebaceous glands and other glands of the skin and mucosa under the foreskin. Yeasts and bacteria that are part of the normal microbiota in this area begin to break down the secretion, rendering it acidic. The irritants produced collect under the foreskin. This causes mucosal redness, itching, burning and scaling.

Self-care

Washing the genitals with lukewarm or warm water once daily is enough. If your skin is dry during the winter, you can apply unscented general-purpose cream or lotion to the glans area to treat the dry, irritated skin.

Seborrheic dermatitis is treated by washing the genitals with water and soap twice daily for the entire duration of the inflammation. After washing, the glans and the foreskin should be dried and antiseptic hydrocortisone cream applied. The rash usually eases within a few days. 

When should you seek treatment?

If the rash hasn’t disappeared within two weeks, you should contact a healthcare professional. Chronic rashes that occur on the glans can also occur in all other skin areas. Contact allergy such as latex allergy caused by condoms may also occur in the glans area. Symptomless growth of yeasts is normally present in the glans area, but it may sometimes cause itching or burning of the head of the penis or pale-coloured discharge under the foreskin. Prolonged symptoms always require examination by a healthcare professional. 

Information sources: The Finnish Medical Society Duodecim: Terveysportti, Lääkärin tietokanta database

FSHS General Practitioner / 01 November 2019