What Is Circumcision?

Circumcision is the surgical removal of the foreskin of the penis

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Circumcision is the surgical removal of the foreskin of the penis. The foreskin is the retractable skin covering the head of the penis. Circumcision is the most common surgery performed on males in the United States. It is most often completed before a baby leaves the hospital after birth.

In recent years, more parents in the United States are reconsidering whether or not to have their infants circumcised. Learning about the roots of the procedure, the possible health benefits, and the risks can help you decide whether circumcision is the right decision for your family.

Infant baby sleeping
 Lisa Wiltse / Corbis / Getty Images

What Is Circumcision?

Circumcision is a surgical procedure that removes the foreskin of the penis. The foreskin covers the head of the penis and is entirely connected to the penis when a baby is born. However, with time it detaches from the penis and can be retracted (pulled back).

In most cases, circumcision is performed on infants. In the United States, the procedures can be done by an OB-GYN or a pediatrician. For people of the Jewish faith, circumcision is performed by a mohel, a person trained in circumcision, during a ceremony called a bris, which takes place on the baby’s eighth day of life.

What to Expect During the Procedure

A hospital circumcision of an infant only takes a few minutes. A clamp is put on the baby’s penis, and the foreskin is cut and removed. Babies are generally given local pain relief, but are awake for the procedure. 

Adult circumcision is rarer, but is also a relatively safe and simple procedure. It can be done for medical reasons, like having a foreskin that does not fully retract (phimosis), or for personal reasons, like religious conversion.

For adults, the procedure is done by a urologist. It takes about half an hour and is done under general anesthesia. Anyone who gets circumcised may experience some pain in the following days, which can be treated with over-the-counter pain medications like Tylenol or Advil.

What Are the Benefits?

There are some health benefits to circumcision, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Boys and men who are circumcised have slightly lower risk of sexually-transmitted diseases, including HIV.

They also have slightly lower risks of urinary tract infections and cancer of the penis, although those conditions are very rare for males to begin with. Overall, the health benefits of circumcision are small. For example, 300,000 boys in the U.S. being circumcised would prevent just one case of penile cancer.

Since the health benefits of circumcision are minimal, many families chose circumcision for personal or cultural reasons, not health reasons. Some religions, including Islam and Judaism, require that men be circumcised.

In past decades, many American families chose to circumcise boys because the procedure was common in the country. They didn’t want sons to look different from friends or family. They may also have been unfamiliar with caring for an uncircumcised penis.

What Are the Risks?

Circumcision is a safe procedure, but as with any medical procedure there are a few risks. Pain, bleeding, and infection are common risks for the procedure. In rarer cases, circumcision can cause scarring.

However, only about 1.5% of children who are circumcised experience complications. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that the benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks, but stops short of recommending the procedure for all infants.

While circumcision is usually done soon after birth, it has to be delayed if a baby is having health complications or was born prematurely. In those cases, the procedure will be done once the baby's health has stabilized.

Increasingly, there is a movement to consider how the child will feel about circumcision later in life. Some parents feel it is better not to alter a child’s body until the child can consent to the procedure.

Parents who chose not to leave their child's penis intact should educate themselves about caring for an uncircumcised penis. Parents should never try to retract the foreskin. It’s not necessary to retract the foreskin to clean the penis.

Once the foreskin naturally begins to detach, parents can teach their child how to gently pull the foreskin back to wash the area.

How Common Is Circumcision?

The United States has a higher rate of circumcision than most other developed countries, but the popularity of the procedure is declining slightly. In 1979, roughly 65% of American male babies were circumcised; by 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, the rate decreased to 58%.

Circumcision is more common in countries with a majority Muslim or Jewish population, where up to 95% of men are circumcised. But in other countries the procedure is rare: in Europe and South America, less than 20% of the male population is circumcised.

A Word From Verywell

The decision about whether or not to circumcise a baby is extremely personal. Families can discuss the medical benefits and risks with the doctor, but both the benefits and risks are small. Because of that, the decision most often comes down to your own personal, religious, and cultural beliefs about the procedure, as well as your beliefs on body autonomy.

Whatever you decide, remember that Americans are nearly evenly split on whether or not to circumcise male babies. Whether you choose to circumcise your child or leave the penis “intact,” the child will likely have peers that have the same appearance and will be unlikely to encounter any social problems or bullying about this particular issue.

The research around circumcision continues to be published, as cultural norms in the United States and elsewhere are changing. Talking with your doctor, religious leaders, and your partner can help you make the decision about whether circumcision is right for you or your baby.

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