Background  In adults, human papillomaviruses (HPV), lichen sclerosus et atrophicus (LSA) and phimosis are considered to be major risk factors for penile cancer. In boys, a possible association between phimosis, LSA and HPV has been suggested.

Objective  To investigate the role of HPV in the persistence of phimosis in children.

Patients and methods  Out of a cohort of 420 boys presenting with foreskin problems, we prospectively sampled the preputial tissue of 82 patients during circumcision: 46 with steroid-naïve and 36 with steroid-resistant phimosis. All foreskins were assessed clinically and histopathologically with regard to appearance, inflammation, oedema, epithelial degeneration and fibrosis. The viral status of the foreskins was determined by immunohistochemistry and highly sensitive PCR, with subsequent subtyping by DNA hybridization (HPV types 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 35, 39, 42, 44, 45, 51–54, 56, 58, 59, 61, 62, 66–68, 70, 72, 73, 81–84, 90, 91).

Results  The foreskins appeared normal in 62 boys and suggestive of LSA in one single case. Small cracks or white scars were present in seven steroid-naïve and 12 steroid-resistant foreskins. LSA was diagnosed microscopically in two of the steroid-naïve and six of the steroid-pretreated group. No evidence of HPV was found in any of the juvenile foreskins.

Conclusions  Our prospective study has provided evidence that HPV is not usually present in the foreskin of boys with persistent phimosis after their first year of life and that topical glucocorticoid treatment failure is not associated with HPV or any specific histopathological changes.