Male circumcision is the surgical removal of the foreskin.
The foreskin is the retractable fold of skin that covers the end of the penis. It’s a continuation of the skin that covers the whole penis.
This page focuses on circumcision for medical reasons in adults and covers:
Read about circumcision for medical reasons in children.
Why circumcision is carried out
Circumcision may be carried out for:
- medical reasons – in adult men, circumcision is most commonly carried out when the foreskin is tight and won’t retract (pull back); this is known as phimosis; however, alternative treatments, such as topical steroids, are sometimes preferred
- religious and cultural reasons – circumcision is a common practice in the Jewish and Islamic communities, and it's also practised by many African communities (most cultural circumcisions are carried out on children)
- HIV prevention – there's evidence that circumcision reduces the risk of heterosexual men acquiring HIV, and in some African countries with high rates of HIV, it's encouraged as part of HIV prevention programmes
Medical reasons to have a circumcision
In adults, circumcision is sometimes considered a possible treatment option for the following conditions:
- tight foreskin (phimosis) – where the foreskin is too tight to be pulled back over the head of the penis (glans); this can sometimes cause pain when the penis is erect and, in rare cases, passing urine may be difficult
- recurrent balanitis – where the foreskin and head of the penis become inflamed and infected
- paraphimosis – where the foreskin can't be returned to its original position after being pulled back, causing the head of the penis to become swollen and painful; immediate treatment is needed to avoid serious complications, such as restricted blood flow to the penis
- balanitis xerotica obliterans – a condition that causes phimosis and, in some cases, also affects the head of the penis, which can become scarred and inflamed
- cancer of the penis – a very rare type of cancer that can occur in adult men, where a red patch, wart-like growth, or ulcer appears on the end of penis or under the foreskin
In most cases, circumcision will only be recommended when other, less invasive and less risky treatments have been tried and haven't worked.
Mild cases of phimosis can be treated with topical steroids to help soften the skin and make it easier for the foreskin to retract.
In paraphimosis, a healthcare professional may rub a local anaesthetic gel on to the glans to help reduce pain and inflammation. They may then apply pressure to the head of the penis while pushing the foreskin forward. In severe cases, local anaesthetic gel can be applied to the penis and a small slit made in the foreskin to help relieve the pressure.
Balanitis and balanitis xerotica obliterans can sometimes be successfully treated using corticosteroid ointment, gel or cream, antibiotic creams or antifungal creams.
The three main treatment options for penile cancer are:
If you're considering circumcision for a medical reason, it's worth discussing alternative treatment options with your GP or specialist.
There's evidence from several trials carried out in Africa that circumcised men have a lower risk of acquiring HIV from infected women.
However, it’s unclear whether male circumcision can help prevent other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). There have been several studies into male circumcision and the risk of other STIs, but the evidence to date has been inconclusive and conflicting.
Circumcision is usually carried out on a day-patient basis. This means you’ll be admitted to hospital on the same day you have surgery and you won't have to stay overnight. You’ll be asked not to eat and drink for six hours before surgery if you're having a general anaesthetic.
After you’ve been admitted to hospital, you’ll be seen by the members of the medical team carrying out the procedure, including your surgeon and anaesthetist. This is a good opportunity to discuss any concerns you have and ask questions about anything you’re not sure about. You'll be asked to sign a consent form to confirm you agree to the surgery.
You'll usually either have a general anaesthetic, which means you'll be unconscious throughout the procedure, or a local anaesthetic injection, which will numb your penis and the surrounding area. In some cases, a spinal anaesthetic, where you’re unable to feel anything below your waist, will be used.
Read more about the different types of anaesthesia.
Circumcision is a relatively simple procedure. The foreskin is removed just behind the head of the penis using a scalpel or surgical scissors. Any bleeding can be cauterised (stopped using heat), and the remaining edges of skin will be stitched together using dissolvable stitches.
The British Association of Urological Surgeons (BAUS) has produced a leaflet that outlines the circumcision procedure (PDF, 970kb) in more detail.
Recovering after circumcision
When you’re discharged from hospital, you’ll be given advice about your recovery at home, including when you can drive, return to work and have sex.
It usually takes at least 10 days for your penis to heal after circumcision. You'll probably be advised to take at least one week off work to recover.
You don’t need to tell the DVLA if you’ve had a routine circumcision and you don’t have any other medical conditions that affect your ability to drive. However, it’s your responsibility to ensure you’re fit to drive after having surgery. You should avoid having sex for at least four weeks after your operation.
Your care team will give you a contact number to call in case you experience any problems or have any concerns. You should also be given details about your follow-up appointment, which may be at the hospital or with your GP.
For three or four days after your operation, it’s likely you’ll experience some discomfort and swelling around the head of your penis. Before leaving hospital, you’ll be given painkilling medication, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, to help ease this. However, contact your GP if you have a temperature, increased redness, bleeding, persistent pain or throbbing of your penis, because it could be a sign of infection.
Applying petroleum jelly (Vaseline) around the tip of your penis will stop it sticking to your underwear. Wearing light, loose-fitting clothing for two or three days after your operation will also help to avoid irritation to your penis while it heals.
You shouldn’t feel any pain or discomfort while passing urine, but contact your medical team if you do.
Risks of circumcision
In the UK, complications after circumcisions carried out for medical reasons are rare and most men don’t experience any significant problems.
Apart from the initial swelling, bleeding and infection are the two most common problems associated with circumcision. There’s between a 1 in 10 and 1 in 50 chance that you’ll experience bleeding or infection.
Other possible complications of circumcision can include:
- permanent reduction in sensation in the head of the penis, particularly during sex
- tenderness around the scar
- the need to remove stitches that haven't dissolved
- occasionally, another operation is needed to remove some more skin from around the head of the penis
The World Health Organization (WHO) states that female circumcision, often referred to as female genital mutilation (or FGM), is recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It’s also illegal under the Female Genital Mutilation Act (2003).
Page last reviewed: 22/01/2016
Next review due: 22/01/2018