Medical Examiner

The Chilly Saga of Prince Harry’s Penis Could Have Been Much, Much Worse

A man as seen from the hips, wearing Union Jack–patterned boxers, surrounded by snowflakes and other signs of cold.
Just call him His Royal Frigidness. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Prince Harry spills a lot of ink in his memoir, Spare, on “Willy”—which is what he calls his brother, better known to you and me as Prince William—but the book also contains more than one revelation about his other willy. Such as: Contrary to popular belief, Harry is circumcised. Um, OK! And that circumcised willy of his has been through the wringer, apparently: It, and by extension he, got frostbite in 2011, while Harry was on an Arctic expedition. What’s more, the prince was still recovering from this serious case of chilly willy during one of his biggest moments on the world’s stage—when he served as best man at his brother’s wedding.

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These are just some of the more sensational leaks that flooded headlines last week in the leadup to the book’s release. With Harry making the talk show rounds and the book set to hit shelves, there will undoubtedly be plenty more royal gossip to chatter about this week. But some of us still need a moment, because it’s not every day that you learn that the Duke of Sussex got frostbite on a body part you weren’t even aware could get frostbitten. Or that he calls his penis his “todger.” In the interest of all of us being able to move on with our lives, we thought it prudent to pose some of our biggest questions and concerns about penile frostbite to a slate of professionals.

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The first thing to know is that Harry is a statistical oddity. “It’s a very rare phenomenon,” said Seth Cohen, a urologist who teaches at New York University’s medical school, of getting frostbitten in that particular, ahem, place. “This is not something that’s commonplace.”

“While it’s reported that you can get frostbite on your penis, it’s very uncommon, and so I was a bit surprised that that’s where he got frostbit,” agreed Rena Malik, another urologist.

Scott McIntosh, head of the wilderness medicine program at the University of Utah School of Medicine, said that to the extent that he’d heard of anyone getting frostbite in that area, it mostly happened to people exercising in cold weather wearing too-thin clothing. That was the case for Remi Lindholm, the Finnish cross-country skier who got frostbitten on his penis during last year’s Olympics, i.e., the guy Harry just dethroned for the title of the most famous person in the world to have frozen his penis. Spare no more!

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Harry reportedly writes in the book that he had some frostbite on his ears and cheeks, too, but they healed more quickly than his todger. A few of the doctors I spoke to were puzzled as to how Harry ended up with the most severe frostbite on his penis as opposed to, say, on his fingers. But Craig Comiter, a professor of urology at Stanford’s medical school, told me penises are just as vulnerable to the condition as other extremities. He even had a little rhyme for the most at-risk body parts: “fingers, nose, penis, toes.” All of these are “end organs,” Comiter explained, meaning their blood supply comes from just one or two vessels. “If the blood vessels constrict, as they naturally do when it’s cold, you actually can get death of the tissue,” he said. (Comiter added that testicles have better blood flow than penises, so that’s one—well, two—less things to worry about.)

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Comiter said he could envision a scenario where Harry could have contracted the frostbite on his penis but not his hands or feet—and no, it didn’t involve Harry exposing himself in the Arctic. “It’s probably just lack of warm clothing,” Comiter said. “We buy super expensive gloves and wool socks and a face mask if we go to cold weather, but we kind of just wear underwear and pants.” He guessed that the prince may have had the latest gear for protecting his hands and feet and neglected to think about extra protection for a certain other important extremity.

“The other thing is, when you’re using your extremity, there is good blood flow. So if you’re moving your hands, if you’re walking around, you are going to have better blood flow in the fingers and the toes. But if you’re not using the penis, and it’s just sitting there, there’s no reason for it to have extra circulation.”

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So that’s how it could have happened. But what does frostbite on one’s penis look and feel like? In the moment itself, there will probably be some numbness and a very pale appearance, but apparently, it’s the warming up you really need to worry about. “When things are thawing out, and you’re getting sensation and blood flow back to areas that weren’t receiving much blood flow, that is a very painful, painful experience,” Cohen said.

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We don’t know how serious Harry’s frostbite was, but there’s reason to believe it was superficial. Per Page Six, “The injured royal used Elizabeth Arden cream on his afflicted member—on the advice of a friend, who we assume did not have a medical degree—until he finally consulted a doctor.” If Harry had more severe frostbite, he probably would have sought out medical attention sooner, because he would have been in serious duress.

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“Superficial frostbite normally doesn’t prove to have many long-term consequences, but deep frostbite can have very severe consequences, including amputation,” McIntosh said. Harry did not confirm the ultimate outcome for his own case, but Comiter, the Stanford doctor, assumes he was fine. “It would be very unlikely that he would have lost his penis and not spoken about it to Anderson Cooper,” he said.

What other implications could a frostbitten penis have for the prince’s sex life? “The penis has multiple layers, from the skin on the outside to the dermis layers underneath to the corpora cavernosa, which carry all the blood flow for erection,” Cohen said. “There’s quite a lot of layers to get through before you get into the erectile tissue of the penis. So as long as the frostbite just affected the skin and not the actual erectile tissues, you would assume his erectile function would be normal after this injury.”

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Or as Comiter put it, “You’ve got to freeze that thing for a long time to really kill it.”

It’s better than the alternative, but so-called superficial frostbite might take weeks to heal. According to McIntosh, “Frostbitten tissue can be very sore after it is thawed. There’s inflammation in the area. The nerves can be hyperactive and sense pain very acutely.” Then factor in having a gazillion cameras on you at a royal wedding while you’re trying to recover. Yikes!

There’s not really anything to do to help it heal but wait, McIntosh said. (Elizabeth Arden cream, several doctors assured me, would neither help nor hurt.)

One last question: Is it possible Harry might have been slightly better protected if he weren’t, as we all now know, circumcised?

Unlikely, Comiter said: “If you think about it, the foreskin is such a flimsy, thin piece of skin, it would be like wearing Saran Wrap gloves to go out in the winter.” I doubt Harry’s irresponsible enough to do that in the Arctic, but perhaps it’s for the best that he settled in Southern California.

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