What are the treatment options for phimosis?

Photo of a mother and her son talking to their doctor

Nearly all boys have a naturally tightened foreskin for their first several years of life, which than goes away on its own. Treatment is recommended only if it causes problems or remains that way until the child reaches puberty. Using a steroid cream is often enough. Surgery is only rarely needed.

If parents notice that their son’s foreskin can't be pulled back, there is no need for them to worry. It is normal for the foreskin of baby boys and toddlers to be tight or stuck to the head of their penis (glans): Nearly all boys are born with this kind of natural phimosis. It protects the glans and the urethra (urine tube) from things like germs.

Areas of stuck skin (adhesions) usually detach and tight foreskins usually loosen on their own within the first few years of life. So experts recommend first waiting if the child experiences problems like pain or trouble peeing.

The foreskin only rarely remains tightened into puberty (congenital phimosis). By then it will probably not go away on its own and it’s a good idea to talk with a doctor about treatment, even if the phimosis isn’t causing any problems. Treatment should also be considered if the foreskin first became too tight later in life as the result of scarring (acquired phimosis).

What do you need to know about phimosis?

Parents should never try to force the foreskin back in an attempt to loosen it or to wash the penis. This can be very painful for their son. It can also lead to injury. In the first few years of life, the foreskin doesn’t have to be pulled back completely to keep the penis clean. Washing it from the outside is enough.

The foreskin should also never be forced back after puberty or in adulthood. This can lead to injuries and scarring that make the foreskin even tighter.

There is also a risk that the foreskin might get stuck behind the glans when it is pulled back, forming a ring that restricts the blood supply to the glans. This is known as paraphimosis. It is a medical emergency that should be treated by a doctor immediately.

When is it a good idea to treat phimosis?

A naturally tightened foreskin in childhood doesn’t need to be treated, unless

  • it is causing problems like pain or is making it difficult to pee (temporary inflation of the foreskin caused by urine that is not flowing out properly isn’t any reason to worry though),
  • there is frequent affecting the foreskin and the glans.

Treatment of phimosis without any symptoms might be considered if the foreskin

  • remains too tight into and beyond puberty (congenital phimosis), or
  • was loose enough at first, but then became too tight because of scarring (acquired phimosis).

What are the treatment options?

There are two treatment options:

  • Use a steroid cream to help stretch the foreskin.
  • Have surgery to partially or completely remove the foreskin (circumcision).

A steroid cream is usually tried first. Surgery is then recommended if the cream doesn’t work. But there are exceptions: surgery is typically used right away to treat acquired phimosis.

If the foreskin gets stuck behind the head of the penis (paraphimosis), it needs immediate medical treatment. The doctor will first try to return it to its original position using their hands. A local anesthetic is used to numb the area beforehand. If it isn’t possible to move the foreskin back into position in this way, surgery will be needed in order to restore normal circulation of blood to the "pinched off" head of the penis.

What does treatment with steroid cream involve?

In this conservative (non-surgical) treatment approach, a steroid cream is applied to the tip of the foreskin twice a day over a period of four to eight weeks. The steroid cream makes it easier to stretch the skin.

After two weeks, the child or his parents can start trying to gradually stretch the foreskin. This involves only pushing the foreskin back as far as you can without it hurting. It is important to stretch the skin gently so as not to damage the foreskin. Once the foreskin can be pulled back a bit, the cream can also be applied to the front part of the glans that is exposed. Then the foreskin is returned to its normal position.

What benefits does treatment with steroid cream have?

Researchers have found out that this treatment is often successful:

  • Without treatment: The phimosis went away completely in about 18 out of 100 children who used a cream without medication (a placebo) for 4 to 8 weeks, or didn’t have any treatment at all, were then able to pull their foreskin back properly.
  • With treatment: The phimosis went away completely in about 62 out of 100 children who used a steroid cream for the same amount of time were then able to pull their foreskin back properly.

The phimosis did not go away completely in some of the other children, but the treatment was at least able to loosen the foreskin somewhat.

Treatment with a cream is well tolerated. While phimosis is quite likely to come back after some time following treatment with steroid cream, the treatment can be repeated several times. If phimosis still persists, surgery may be a good idea.

Surgery: What procedures are used and what do they involve?

Surgery for phimosis is usually described as circumcision. A full circumcision involves removing all of the foreskin. If the tight part of the foreskin is close to the tip, then sometimes only the tightened part of the foreskin is removed (partial circumcision). In both approaches surgeons close the edges of the cut with several stitches. The suture typically loosens within two weeks and then falls off.

It is also possible to keep the foreskin and simply widen it. To do this, surgeons make lengthwise cuts into the tight foreskin in two or three places and then close the cuts by stitching across them.

Illustration: Surgery to treat phimosis (full circumcision)

The operation is carried out using a general anesthetic in children with an additional local anesthetic applied to the penis. In adults, it is typically enough to use a local anesthetic to numb the area.

The area that was operated on will start to hurt once the anesthetic wears off, so painkillers are used for the first few days after the surgery. In older boys and men there may also be pain a few days later as soon as the penis becomes hard – while sleeping, for instance. The doctor will make sure that everything is healing at check-up appointments – usually the day after the surgery and again two weeks later. Until then you should typically stay home from work to rest and not do any sports. A final check-up is done after four to six weeks.

What are the benefits and risks of circumcision?

Phimosis is no longer possible after the foreskin is completely removed and the head of the penis is no longer covered. Following partial circumcision the foreskin may tighten as a result of scarring. If that happens a second procedure is done to remove the foreskin completely.

Circumcision is now a routine procedure. About 5 out of 100 boys or men have side effects like bruising on the penis, but this isn't harmful and usually goes away on its own after a while. Only about 2 out of 100 people who have the operation experience more serious complications that need to be treated. Those may include bleeding, of the surgical wound, curving of the penis or tightening of the urethra (urine tube) opening. Sometimes bothersome skin tags can form where the foreskin was removed.

Experts believe that the sensitive foreskin plays a role in sexual experience. So they recommend conservative treatment, especially in children whose foreskin is still loosening on its own. A number of studies have shown that circumcised men are generally as satisfied with their sex life as uncircumcised men. Before a circumcision is carried out, doctors explain that sex may feel different after the procedure.

Deutsche Gesellschaft für Kinderchirurgie (DGKCH). Phimose und Paraphimose bei Kindern und Jugendlichen (S2k-Leitlinie). AWMF-Registernr.: 006-052. 2021.

Eckert K, Janssen N, Franz M et al. Die nicht-retrahierbare Vorhaut bei beschwerdefreien Jungen: Eine Indikation zur Zirkumzision? [Nonretractable foreskin in boys without complaints: An indication for circumcision?]. Urologe A 2017; 56(3): 351-357.

Moreno G, Corbalán J, Peñaloza B et al. Topical corticosteroids for treating phimosis in boys. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2014; (9): CD008973.

Morris BJ, Krieger JN. Does male circumcision affect sexual function, sensitivity, or satisfaction? - A systematic review. J Sex Med 2013; 10(11): 2644-2657.

Oetzmann von Sochaczewski C, Gödeke J, Muensterer OJ. Circumcision and its alternatives in Germany: an analysis of nationwide hospital routine data. BMC Urol 2021; 21(1): 34.

Radmayr C, Bogaert G, Burgu B. EAU Guidelines on Paediatric Urology. 2022.

Shabanzadeh DM, During S, Frimodt-Moller C. Male circumcision does not result in inferior perceived male sexual function - a systematic review. Dan Med J 2016; 63(7).

Tian Y, Liu W, Wang JZ et al. Effects of circumcision on male sexual functions: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Asian J Androl 2013; 15(5): 662-666.

Weiss HA, Larke N, Halperin D et al. Complications of circumcision in male neonates, infants and children: a systematic review. BMC Urol 2010; 10: 2.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Updated on May 12, 2023

Next planned update: 2026


Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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