Most men will experience a red, itchy penis from time to time. Swelling, inflammation and itching of the penis is known by the general term balanitis, a Greek word that means "swollen acorn." In spite of the intimidating-sounding name, an inflamed, sore penis is usually nothing very serious, and in most cases, it can be treated easily by following a set penis care routine.

What are the symptoms of balanitis?

The typical symptoms of balanitis include:

- Redness of the glans (head) and foreskin;

- Swelling of the glans and foreskin;

- Moderate to severe itching;

- Burning upon urination;

- Discharge.

Because these symptoms can also be caused by numerous other penile problems, some of them more serious, it is important to get checked out by a doctor. In many cases, doctors will be able to diagnose the problem through a visual examination; they may also recommend lab tests if they suspect a more complex problem.

What causes the swelling, itching and pain?

Balanitis is more common in uncircumcised men, and in most cases, it is simply a matter of inadequate hygiene. Men tend to accumulate a substance known as smegma underneath the foreskin; this pasty material is made up of dead skin cells, body oils and urine that has become trapped under the skin. If it is not washed away regularly, it can attract bacteria that like to feed on it; this triggers the body’s immune system response and causes redness, itching and inflammation.

On a less frequent, but still common basis, balanitis can be caused by thrush - an infection resulting from the overgrowth of Candida yeast. Thrush can develop on the penile skin, or men can be exposed to it through unprotected contact with an infected partner.

Skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema can also cause irritation and soreness, as can exposure to chemical irritants found in many laundry detergents, soaps, shower gels and even body lotions.

How is balanitis treated?

Treatment for balanitis generally involves keeping the penis clean and dry and avoiding contact with known irritants.

Soaking in a saltwater bath may help to eliminate bacteria and fungal spores more quickly; simply add a few handfuls of regular salt to the bathwater and soak for 15 minutes or so. Bath salts, oils and beads should be avoided, as these can actually irritate the penile skin further.

For cases that do not respond to cleansing alone, doctors may recommend a cortisone cream; these should be used only as directed, and for no longer than the suggested time period for treatment.

Can balanitis be prevented?

It is not always possible to prevent penis problems like balanitis, but following these guidelines can help to reduce the chances of developing irritation, swelling, itching and other uncomfortable symptoms:

1) Use unscented, hypoallergenic cleansers. Keeping the penis clean is important, but products that contain detergents, fragrances, alcohol and other harsh chemicals can actually do more harm than good. Using a mild cleanser, instead of standard soaps or scented shower gels, can reduce the risk of drying and irritation.

2) Allow the skin to breathe. Skin that is warm and damp provides the perfect environment for fungal spores and bacteria to thrive in. Drying the skin thoroughly after bathing and wearing breathable fabrics like cotton are important for preventing thrush and other fungal infections.

3) Use unscented, hypoallergenic laundry detergents. Men with sensitive skin are especially prone to irritation, and even laundry detergents and fabric softeners can lead to swelling, soreness and itching of the penile skin. Substituting regular laundry detergents with those made for sensitive skin is preferred.

4) Use a condom. Covering up during sexual contact can reduce the risk that a man will contract thrush from a partner; condoms are also essential for protecting against STIs that may also cause symptoms like itching, swelling and pain.

5) Try a penis health cream (health professionals recommend Man1 Man Oil). Skin that is soft and well-hydrated is more resistant to irritation; a product that contains natural, plant-based moisturizers such as Shea butter is ideal for moisturizing and protecting the penile tissue. Quality creams that are enriched with vitamins and antioxidants can also boost the body’s natural defenses, helping to fight off yeast and fungal infections that can lead to a sore, red, itchy penis.