As COVID-19 has swept the world, researchers and doctors have primarily thought of it as a respiratory virus. Even its clinical name—severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)—addresses its most pressing impact: breathing. But doctors are finding that side effects can include vascular problems as well, including erectile dysfunction (ED).
Contrary to myths circulating on social media, COVID-19 vaccines do not cause erectile dysfunction and male infertility.
What Is Erectile Dysfunction?
In the most basic terms, erectile dysfunction is a problem of inadequate blood flow to the penis. What may seem like a simple problem can have complicated origins, from psychological causes to drug interactions to vascular issues. And the problem may be exacerbated by other contributing factors, says Chris Kyle, MD, MPH, urology advisor to Giddy, a sexual health and wellness company.
“Physical comorbidities, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and hypertension all can have symptoms that include ED,” Kyle tesll Verywell via email. “As for psychological issues, depression and anxiety can both make achieving an erection difficult.”
Erectile Dysfunction and COVID-19
While COVID-19 initially presents as a respiratory illness, it has wide-reaching effects. Many urologists report that vascular damage can lead to erectile dysfunction.
There are currently no major studies proving that ED is a direct effect of COVID-19, but severe vascular damage has been studied as a direct result. In fact, COVID-related pulmonary and cardiovascular symptoms can sometimes be hard to distinguish from each other.
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Judson Brandeis, MD, founder of Brandeis MD Male Rejuvenation Center, says that since COVID-19 can impact the vascular system, moderate to severe cases could cause ED.
“It is not the virus itself, but your body’s reaction to the virus that causes the vascular injury that leads to erectile dysfunction,” he tells Vey well via email. “The massive inflammatory response your body creates to eliminate the virus damages the inner lining of your blood vessels, leading to blood clots and clogged blood vessels that compromise the blood flow to the penis.”
Brandeis says cardiovascular drug therapies can be effective when treating COVID-19.
“There are also studies showing that medications like aspirin that thin the blood are beneficial to treating COVID, and studies showing that anti-inflammatory medications like dexamethasone improve the clinical course of COVID,” he says.
In addition to vascular issues, the stress, anxiety, and potential depression spurred by the overall pandemic could make any existing issues with ED worse. Many patients have reported increased anxiety levels and a rise in depression levels due to isolation necessitated by the virus.
While ED can affect men of any age, it is most common in older adults who experience conditions that can make COVID-19 worse, such as obesity, diabetes, or hypertension.
According to Brandeis, people who have severe cases of COVID-19 are more likely to experience ED.
“The more severe the immune response to COVID, the higher the likelihood of blood vessel damage,” he says.
Researchers are piecing together that surviving COVID-19 may be associated with erectile dysfunction (ED). The research points to three factors that can lead to the potential onset of ED in men who have had the virus:
Erectile function is a predictor of heart disease, so we know that the vascular system and reproductive system are connected. We also know that COVID-19 can cause hyperinflammation throughout the body, especially in the heart and surrounding muscles. Blood supply to the penis can become blocked or narrowed as a result of a new or worsened vascular condition caused by the virus.
Sexual activity is closely associated with mental health. The stress, anxiety and depression caused by the virus and pandemic can be linked to sexual dysfunction and poor mood.
Overall health deterioration.
ED is typically a symptom of an underlying problem. Men with poor health are at greater risk for developing ED and also for having a severe reaction to COVID-19. Since the virus can cause a plethora of health issues, general poor health is cause for concern both for ED and other complications.
What This Means For You
Although there seems to be an anecdotal link between COVID-19 and ED, there is no guarantee that patients will develop ED due to contracting the virus. The intensity of the virus is still varies significantly from patient to patient.