Since the early days of the pandemic, doctors, researchers and COVID survivors have noticed a link between the virus and erectile dysfunction. Now, nearly 18 months later, new data has proven this connection to be even stronger. Only, rather than simply making it harder for your heart to pump blood to your dick — as was previously thought — it may be that COVID wreaks havoc on the penis itself.
“We’re still learning about how COVID affects erectile function,” says Joshua Gonzalez, a urologist and sexual health advisor for Astroglide. “While the exact mechanism leading to ED is unknown, some studies have suggested that COVID infection can contribute to ED by affecting the endothelial cells that line the blood vessels in the penis.” When these cells become damaged from COVID, the penis has less capacity for holding the blood needed for erections.
Per Gonzalez, other research has found that men who’ve had COVID are more than five times more likely to have ED than men who’ve never been infected. There are also the long-haul COVID survivors who can have chronic fatigue or other symptoms that interfere with normal erectile and sexual function.
As my colleague Quinn Myers previously reported for MEL, erectile dysfunction has become a post-COVID symptom for perfectly healthy young men with mild cases as well. “It’s been eight months, and my ability to stay erect is still way off,” Ben, a 24-year-old, told him. “The worst part is that my overall sex drive has returned, so the erection issue no longer lines up with that. It’s very frustrating.”
Notably, studies on rates of erectile dysfunction among people who’ve had COVID have found these discrepancies to occur even when factoring in age, BMI and other physiological factors. Research has also revealed that COVID can stick around in the testicles and penile tissue of some male patients for as long as nine months after the infection has cleared. In one of those studies, the male patients were receiving penile implants after developing severe ED following their COVID infections. For all patients, ED wasn’t a problem until after they got sick.
The good news is that despite a few reports of COVID-related ED being unresponsive to traditional treatments, Gonzalez says most cases can be remedied with the usual methods like Viagra, penis pumps or surgery. “COVID-related ED is treated similarly to classic ED,” he explains. “Chronic illnesses can often affect our circulatory and hormonal systems, and COVID-19 is no different. An evaluation of one’s hormones and erectile blood flow would help identify the problem areas so that treatments to correct these issues can be prescribed.”
As for the exact how’s and why’s of COVID-related ED, there’s still much we have left to learn. Because the long-term effects of COVID have yet to be fully understood, we don’t know for certain how strong the correlation between the virus and ED is — or will continue to be. “It’s too early to say,” Gonzalez tells me. “We don’t yet fully understand if COVID-related ED is another long-haul symptom that will eventually improve or if it’s something that forever changes how a man’s penis functions.”
Either way, it’s best to avoid having to find out for yourself. Despite the Delta variant circulating rapidly, vaccines are extremely effective at preventing COVID-19, especially severe cases. So you might as well do what you can now to avoid needing a penile implant in the future.