Friction burns can happen pretty much anywhere, and yes, that includes the penis. Friction burns and small tears in the skin of the head and shaft of the penis are actually totally common, and they can happen from everyday activity, or from solo or partnered sexual activity. If you’re concerned about potential friction burn or are wondering what you can do about it, read on for symptoms, causes, treatment, and prevention.
“The genitals always have some tearing during sexual activities,” Nicole Prause, PhD, founder of the sexual biotechnology company, Liberos, tells O.school. Dr. Prause ads, “usually you cannot see these tears, but sometimes high-friction stimulation of the penis will cause a scab, usually crusty, rough, and reddish in color, to form.”
These reddish, scabby patches of skin, that can form on the penis, often during partnered sex or masturbation, are usually friction burns.
Some other symptoms of friction burn include:
- Pain and sensitivity in the affected area
- Feelings of irritation or itchiness
- Inflammation or swelling
- Appearance similar to a small burn
Is it definitely friction burn?
Though friction burns are common and will completely heal over time, they can look very similar to other more important genital health concerns, including STIs and balanitis.
Ruling out an STI
Similar symptoms to that of friction burn — reddish patches of skin on the penis — can also be an indicator of various STIs including:
Common symptoms of STIs to keep an eye out for, especially if you experience skin irritation that you’re not sure is just friction burn or not, include:
- Painful or burning sensation when urinating
- Discharge from the penis
- Persistent itchiness of skin of the penis or testicles
- Itching sensation inside of the penis
- Blisters or sores on the penis, around the testes and/or anus
- Swelling or pain in the testes
Experiencing any of these is a good indicator you should see your doctor right away to be tested for an STI, and begin the appropriate treatment in a timely manner if needed. Prause stresses that “any time you have a reasonable possibility of an infection, you should ask a doctor to check.” She clarifies that “reasonable possibility can arise from the following: sex with a new partner, unprotected sex without knowing your partner's infection status, or reusing a sex toy you were not sure was clean.”
In addition, if the sore heals after a few days, it doesn’t rule out the possibility of a sexually transmitted infection, as STI symptoms can come and go. The only way to be 100 percent sure is to get tested. You should also notify any recent sexual partners so they can proactively get tested as well.
Ruling out Balanitis
If the skin irritation is occurring primarily around the head (glans) of the penis, it’s more likely related to balanitis. Balanitis is often caused by an overgrowth of yeast or bacteria. While this condition is more likely to occur in people with uncircumcised penises, it also happens to people with circumcised penises. People often experience balanitis in relation to poor or unsafe genital hygiene practices.
Experiencing friction burn on the penis is usually caused by the following activities:
- Vigorous or extended masturbation (especially with dry conditions, with rough hands, etc)
- Fast, penetrative sex (especially with dry conditions)
- Drying oneself with a rough towel
- Wearing tight-fitting clothing for extended periods of time, especially when exercising
If you experience a friction burn that you notice during masturbation or penetrative intercourse, you should stop the activity, but Prause also makes an important note about the way our brain might register certain sensations during sexual experiences.
“Since sex is very pleasurable, the friction may not be processed by the brain as pain at the time,” she says, “so it is common not to even notice a friction burn forming.” Or getting worse.
If the reasonable possibility of an STI (or another infection) has been ruled out, and the penis does, in fact, have a friction burn, it will heal on its own generally within seven days. Prause advises, “when injured, the penile dermis, has the potential to be infected, so it should be clean, dry and protected whenever possible.” To make the healing process smoother, more comfortable, and reduce the risk of infection or further irritation, there are several suggested best practices, including:
- Refraining from solo and partnered sex involving the penis until the wound heals
- Wearing soft, breathable, loose-fitting underwear and clothing
- Applying mild moisturizer, aloe vera gel, petroleum jelly, and/or an antibiotic ointment
- Keeping the general area clean and dry, other than healing ointments
The first key to preventing friction burns resulting from sexual activity is a personal lubricant. The truth is, pretty much every single sexual experience is drastically improved by the involvement of lube — not only in pleasure but also in safety.
Another thing to consider regarding the prevention of friction burns when intimate with a partner is open communication. Prause describes this as being “willing to pause a particularly pleasurable sexual activity if you feel a ‘hot spot’ or area becoming especially roughly rubbed.” For many reasons, a person may be reluctant or feel embarrassed to let their partner know, however, as Prause adds, “you absolutely should mention these concerns; they are part of good communication.”
When cleaning the genitals, use a mild gentle wash. You can clean yourself using your hands, a soft loofa or washcloth, and dry off by patting the area gently dry with a soft towel.
When in doubt, talk to your doctor
Our bodies manifest and present symptoms of infection, illness, and injury in such a plethora of ways, often inconsistently too, so if you’re at all anxious or unsure about something going on with your genitals, it’s best to see your doctor so they can accurately assess, diagnose, and treat any sexual health concerns.