Saddle Sores: Treatment and Prevention

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reviewed by Ben Gibbons
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Unpleasant at best and excruciating at worst, saddle sores can transform a passion for pedaling into a test of endurance.

So, how can we overcome this obstacle and continue to enjoy our rides?

Having represented my country internationally as a mountain biker and competed in major European road races in my youth cycling career, I’ve had more than my fair share of experience dealing with saddle sores.

Now, I want to share that knowledge to help spare you the same pain!

Whether you’re battling saddle sores or hoping to avoid them altogether, join us as we navigate this terrain in search of smoother rides. We’ll be covering:

  • What Are Saddle Sores?
  • What Causes Saddle Sores? 6 Common Causes
  • What Factors Increase Your Risk Of Saddle Sores?
  • How To Prevent Saddle Sores
  • 5 Effective Saddle Sore Treatments

Let’s dive in!

Saddle Sores Treatment and Prevention: Title Image

What Are Saddle Sores?

Essentially, a saddle sore refers to any discomfort or pain that originates from the undercarriage during or after a bike ride.

The interpretation of this term can vary widely, ranging from mild tenderness to more severe conditions such as damaged skin, folliculitis, contact dermatitis, diaper rash, yeast infections, or bruising and swelling of the vulva.

It can also involve numbness and the presence of saddle sore cysts, among other uncomfortable issues.

That’s an alarming list, to say the least.

Saddle soreness is a complex problem, and the affected areas, due to their private nature and societal taboos, are often left unaddressed, and sufferers may silently endure their pain.

If you are dealing with a persistent issue, seeking advice from a healthcare professional is essential to obtain an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

A cyclist pauses on his bike after suffering from saddle sores.

What Causes Saddle Sores? 6 Common Causes

The causes of saddle sores are numerous and complex. It is unlikely that a single reason can be pinpointed as the sole trigger if you are currently experiencing this problem.

Central to understanding these triggers are our reproductive systems, which are essential yet delicate, as well as our skin.

Our skin plays a vital role as a protector, retaining vital elements like water while excluding harmful ones like bacteria, irritants, and pollutants.

Moreover, our skin hosts a network of vessels for blood transportation (capillaries) and bodily fluids (lymph), as well as glands for sweat and other body secretions (such as Bartholin glands in females).

Cycling encompasses multiple factors that can have adverse effects on our skin and the underlying structures, increasing our vulnerability to both chronic and acute saddle sores.

Here are six of the most common causes of saddle sores:

#1: Pressure-induced saddle sores from bike fit and saddle selection

A man in a bicycle shop helps choose the right saddle for a customer.

Saddle sores often arise from the pressure exerted on our undercarriage while sitting on a saddle.

The distribution of body weight on the chosen saddle, along with the cycling posture, are significant contributing factors.

The ischial tuberosities – commonly known as “sit bones” – and the perineum (the area between the anus and genitals) are typically where most of us bear weight during cycling. 

These regions are frequently associated with the most intense discomfort. It is preferable for the saddle to distribute the majority of your body weight onto your sit bones. 

It is important to avoid placing body weight on sensitive areas such as the genitals. Due to variations in pelvic anatomy, it can be particularly challenging for women to avoid this.

Pressure-related problems may not disappear once you finish cycling and can result in persistent numbness. Men have been known to experience cycling-related erectile dysfunction in severe cases.

#2: Friction and chafing

A man wearing a white t-shirt hold his hands by his groin.

The friction generated by pedaling, along with the vibrations from the road or trail, can cause subtle skin damage, compromising its role as a protective barrier against sweat and bacteria.

Friction is mainly caused by poorly lubricated skin or ill-fitting shorts that rub or bunch up during pedaling.

It is crucial to emphasize that cycling shorts are intended to be worn directly against the skin, without the use of underwear.

In the production of cycling shorts, designers take into account every detail, from material selection to seam placement, to minimize friction and rubbing.

Wearing underwear with cycling shorts compromises their effectiveness.

The foam pad in cycling shorts was originally made from chamois leather. Currently, padded shorts are typically constructed using foam, gel, and elastomers, and the majority of cyclists agree that they offer enhanced comfort.

Wearing ill-fitting shorts or a pad that doesn’t suit you (size, density, shape) can contribute to discomfort issues.

#3: Folliculitis

Folliculitis is a skin condition marked by the inflammation of hair follicles, which can also be susceptible to bacterial or fungal infections.

It is not necessary to remove hair to develop folliculitis. Friction and other skin damage can also cause it.

This prevalent skin issue manifests as red or white pimples. Although it is often described as “usually painless,” those who have experienced saddle soreness caused by folliculitis would strongly disagree.

Three men on mountain bikes cycle up a hill while wearing cycling shorts, an effective prevention method for saddle sores.

#4: Furuncles (boils)

Folliculitis, though generally mild, can progress into a more serious condition.

If an inflamed hair follicle becomes infected with the bacterium Staphylococcus, it can develop into a painful, pus-filled infection known as a furuncle or boil.

A cluster of interconnected boils beneath the skin surface is referred to as a carbuncle.

#5: Swelling

If you hit a pothole and bruising develops on the area in contact with the saddle, it indicates that capillaries within the skin have ruptured.

The lymphatic system is also involved in this process, and once the lymph vessels are damaged, they struggle to recover, leading to persistent swelling.

#6: Post-ride Hygeine

Lingering in your damp cycling shorts after a ride is not advisable.

As mentioned earlier, cycling can impair the skin’s ability to function as a barrier, so prioritizing cleanliness after your ride is crucial.

Even if you cannot shower immediately, at the very least, change out of your sweaty shorts, clean yourself as thoroughly as possible, and apply a moisturizer.

This guidance is particularly important to consider if you are engaging in bikepacking or touring activities that span multiple days and often lack access to adequate cleaning facilities.

A pair of black cycling bib-shorts white a white background.

What Factors Increase Your Risk Of Saddle Sores?

While anyone can develop saddle sores, the likelihood of experiencing them increases on lengthy bike journeys due to reduced skin ventilation during extended saddle time without breaks.

Additional factors that can escalate the risk include:

  • Higher body mass
  • Poor bike fit
  • Limited variation in your cycling position
  • Direct exposure of the skin to the saddle
  • Loose-fitting shorts or trousers

Intensive cycling can also increase the potential for certain female-specific conditions, such as vaginitis (inflammation of the vagina) and labial hypertrophy (enlargement of the labia).

A pair of cycling shorts with a red chamois are washed in soap.
Washing your cycling shorts regularly is an effective measure to prevent saddle sores.

How To Prevent Saddle Sores

Factors contributing to saddle sores include both external elements like bike fit and saddle selection, as well as internal aspects related to the individual rider. If skin health is affected, an interdisciplinary approach may be necessary for a comfortable return to cycling.

Saddle Position

Regardless of the quality of your saddle, it cannot provide optimal comfort if it is improperly positioned.

While saddle placement is just one aspect of a good bike fit, it is an excellent starting point if you are dealing with saddle sores but are satisfied with the rest of your bike setup.

Most cyclists find a level saddle position comfortable, with the saddle rails adjusted to a middle position lengthwise. However, individual experiences may vary.

Competitive cycling often requires specific saddle positions, usually level and not excessively forward, although these guidelines have become more flexible in recent years.

Slightly tilting the saddle’s nose downward might relieve front-end pressure.

Self-adjustment may not always yield satisfactory results, so consider investing in a professional bike fitting service if discomfort persists.

A cyclist adjust his bike seat's position to prevent saddle sores.

Saddle Design

Bicycle saddle design has evolved significantly since the invention of the bike.

Factors such as width, padding amount, shell curvature, and the need for a cutout are critical.

While no single alteration in saddle design will dramatically improve comfort, experimenting with these variables in combination will guide you to your ideal saddle.

Pressure on the pudendal nerve, which runs between the genitals and perineum, can lead to various issues more commonly experienced by male cyclists. These issues may include numbness and, in severe cases, erectile dysfunction.

A saddle cutout can help prevent these issues. Many women also find that a saddle featuring a cutout area helps alleviate soft tissue pressure.

A person measures the height of a bicycle saddle on a bike.

The Role of Saddle Width in Saddle Sores

The width of your sit bones plays a vital role in selecting the right saddle. As sit bone widths vary among individuals, manufacturers offer saddles tailored to these differences.

You can measure your sit bone width at home using a piece of cardboard, or a professional bike fitter can assist you in taking this measurement and suggest suitable saddles.

Pelvic Health

In some cases, optimizing overall pelvic health rather than changing the saddle might be the solution.

If you experience pelvic pain off the bike that is exacerbated by your cycling position, the bike might be just a minor part of the problem.

If you find yourself in this situation, you should arrange a consultation with a medical professional.

Choosing the Right Cycling Shorts

Cycling shorts come with a chamois pad that cushions the rider against the saddle. 

However, not all chamois pads are created equal, and different riders might prefer different brands.

If you frequently feel uncomfortable in your shorts, it might be time to switch to a different pair.

A pot of white cream with a white background.

Chamois Cream

Chamois creams often contain antibacterial ingredients that help prevent harmful germs from causing issues and include soothing elements like aloe vera or shea butter.

Additionally, the cream’s texture reduces friction between your body and the chamois.

Cycling Shorts Hygiene

Cycling shorts are designed to be worn directly against your skin, without any layers between your body and the chamois. Therefore, underwear is a no-go with cycling shorts.

As a result, it is necessary to wash them after every use to prevent the accumulation of bacteria, which can cause infections.

Similarly, it’s advisable to take off your shorts and shower promptly after cycling, avoiding the habit of lounging in your shorts for extended periods after a ride and allowing bacteria to multiply against your skin.

Hair Removal Considerations

While cyclists are often associated with shaved legs, care should be taken with more intimate grooming. 

The hair around your genitals serves as a natural absorbent of sweat and acts as a protective barrier.

Hair removal can lead to regrowth complications such as ingrown hairs and follicular infections. Thus, consider the potential risks before deciding on a more comprehensive shave.

A cyclist wearing black and white stands on the road with their bicycle.

5 Effective Saddle Sore Treatments

Despite being cautious and proactive, no cyclist is entirely immune to the nuisance of saddle sores.

If you are afflicted, consider employing the following treatments to expedite the healing process.

#1. Take a Break from Cycling

If a saddle sore is persistent, continuing to subject the area to the same source of irritation is likely to hinder your recovery.

Consider taking a couple of days off your bike and wearing loose, breathable clothing to facilitate quicker healing.

#2. Prioritize Hygiene and Dryness

Establish a daily cleansing routine, preferably using unscented soap, and gently pat the area dry.

Attempting to pop, squeeze, or disturb the saddle sores can be counterproductive. The key is to maintain cleanliness and dryness, allowing your body to heal naturally.

An ice pack and cloth to be used in cold therapy to treat pain and swelling from saddle sores.
Cold therapy can provide relief from pain and swelling caused by saddle sores.

#3. Use Cold Therapy

If the saddle sores are causing discomfort and inflammation, using a cold compress can provide relief. This method helps reduce swelling and alleviate pain.

To create a cold compress, wrap ice (or a packet of frozen peas) in a cloth and apply it to the affected area for intervals of 10-15 minutes.

#4. Apply an Antibacterial Ointment

Sudocrem, a widely preferred choice, is a versatile antibacterial cream used to treat various minor skin conditions, including diaper rash.

Applying a thin layer of this cream can work wonders on the affected area.

#5. Recognize When to Seek Professional Help

In general, minor skin irritations and ulcerations do not require professional medical attention.

However, if your saddle sores show no signs of improvement after a few days or if they transform into open, painful wounds that appear infected, it is crucial to consult a doctor without delay.

Symptoms such as pus discharge or fever indicate an infection.

Upon evaluation, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics, which could include both oral medication and topical creams to be applied directly to the sores.

If a saddle sore cyst or an abscess has formed in severe cases, medical intervention may be necessary to perform a procedure for its drainage.

In conclusion, saddle sores can range from a minor inconvenience to a significant roadblock in your cycling journey.

The prevention and treatment methods discussed above are invaluable tools in your kit to ensure that your time spent in the saddle is as comfortable as possible.

A cyclist in a blue jersey rides an indoor bike having resolved saddle sore issues.

Now You Know All About Saddle Sores…

Remember, every rider is unique, and what works for one may not necessarily be the best solution for another.

It’s all about listening to your body and making adjustments accordingly.

Whether you’re an everyday commuter, a weekend warrior, or a professional athlete, understanding saddle sores can empower you to make informed choices about your cycling gear, hygiene practices, and recovery tactics.

If you’ve ever experienced saddle sores, we’d love to hear about your journey to healing.

So, drop a comment below and share your experiences and solutions!

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Quentin's background in bike racing runs deep. In his youth, he won the prestigious junior Roc d'Azur MTB race before representing Belgium at the U17 European Championships in Graz, Austria. Shifting to road racing, he then competed in some of the biggest races on the junior calendar, including Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders, before stepping up to race Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Paris-Roubaix as an U23. With a breakthrough into the cut-throat environment of professional racing just out of reach, Quentin decided to shift his focus to embrace bike racing as a passion rather than a career. Now writing for BikeTips, Quentin's experience provides invaluable insight into performance cycling - though he's always ready to embrace the fun side of the sport he loves too and share his passion with others.

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