Erectile dysfunction (impotence) is the inability to get and keep an erection firm enough for sex.
Erectile dysfunction symptoms might include persistent:
- Trouble getting an erection
- Trouble keeping an erection
- Reduced sexual desire
When to see a doctor
A family doctor is a good place to start when you have erectile problems. See your doctor if:
- You have concerns about your erections or you’re experiencing other sexual problems, including ejaculatory dysfunction, such as premature or delayed ejaculation
- You have diabetes, heart disease or another known health condition that might be linked to erectile dysfunction
- You have other symptoms along with erectile dysfunction
Male sexual arousal is a complex process that involves the brain, hormones, emotions, nerves, muscles and blood vessels. Erectile dysfunction can result from a problem with any of these. Likewise, stress and mental health concerns can cause or worsen erectile dysfunction.
Sometimes a combination of physical and psychological issues causes erectile dysfunction. For instance, a minor physical condition that slows your sexual response might cause anxiety about maintaining an erection. The resulting anxiety can lead to or worsen erectile dysfunction.
Physical causes of erectile dysfunction
In most cases, erectile dysfunction is caused by something physical. Common causes include:
- Heart disease
- Clogged blood vessels (atherosclerosis)
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Metabolic syndrome — a condition involving increased blood pressure, high insulin levels, body fat around the waist and high cholesterol
- Parkinson’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Peyronie’s disease — development of scar tissue inside the penis
- Certain prescription medications
- Tobacco use
- Alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse
- Sleep disorders
- Treatments for prostate cancer or enlarged prostate
- Surgeries or injuries that affect the pelvic area or spinal cord
Psychological causes of erectile dysfunction
The brain plays a key role in triggering the series of physical events that cause an erection, starting with feelings of sexual excitement. A number of things can interfere with sexual feelings and cause or worsen erectile dysfunction. These include:
- Depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions
- Relationship problems due to stress, poor communication or other concerns
As you get older, erections might take longer to develop and might not be as firm. You might need more direct touch to your penis to get and keep an erection. This might indicate underlying health conditions or be a result of taking medications
Various risk factors can contribute to erectile dysfunction, including:
- Medical conditions, particularly diabetes or heart conditions
- Tobacco use, which restricts blood flow to veins and arteries, can — over time— cause chronic health conditions that lead to erectile dysfunction
- Being overweight, especially if you’re obese
- Certain medical treatments, such as prostate surgery or radiation treatment for cancer
- Injuries, particularly if they damage the nerves or arteries that control erections
- Medications, including antidepressants, antihistamines and medications to treat high blood pressure, pain or prostate conditions
- Psychological conditions, such as stress, anxiety or depression
- Drug and alcohol use, especially if you’re a long-term drug user or heavy drinker
- Prolonged bicycling, which can compress nerves and affect blood flow to the penis, may lead to temporary or permanent erectile dysfunction
Complications resulting from erectile dysfunction can include:
- An unsatisfactory sex life
- Stress or anxiety
- Embarrassment or low self-esteem
- Relationship problems
- The inability to get your partner pregnant
Tests and diagnosis
For many men, a physical exam and medical history are all that’s needed for a doctor to diagnose erectile dysfunction and recommend a treatment. If you have chronic health conditions or your doctor suspects that an underlying condition might be involved, you might need further tests or a consultation with a specialist.
Tests for underlying conditions might include:
- Physical exam. This might include careful examination of your penis and testicles and checking your nerves for sensation.
- Blood tests. A sample of your blood might be sent to a lab to check for signs of heart disease, diabetes, low testosterone levels and other health conditions.
- Urine tests (urinalysis). Like blood tests, urine tests are used to look for signs of diabetes and other underlying health conditions.
- Ultrasound. This test is usually performed by a specialist. It involves using a transducer held over the blood vessels that supply the penis. It creates a video image to let your doctor see if you have blood flow problems.This test is sometimes done in combination with an injection of medications into the penis to stimulate blood flow and produce an erection.
- Overnight erection test. Most men have erections during sleep without remembering them. This simple test involves wrapping a special device around your penis before you go to bed.
- Psychological exam. Your doctor might ask questions to screen for depression and other possible psychological causes of erectile dysfunction.
Treatments and drugs
The first thing your doctor will do is to make sure you’re getting the right treatment for any health conditions that could be causing or worsening your erectile dysfunction.
Depending on the cause and severity of your erectile dysfunction and any underlying health conditions, you might have various treatment options. Your doctor can explain the risks and benefits of each treatment and will consider your preferences. Your partner’s preferences also might play a role in your treatment choices.
Oral medications are a successful erectile dysfunction treatment for many men. They include:
All four medications enhance the effects of nitric oxide — a natural chemical your body produces that relaxes muscles in the penis. This increases blood flow and allows you to get an erection in response to sexual stimulation.
Before taking any medication for erectile dysfunction, including over-the-counter supplements and herbal remedies, get your doctor’s OK. Medications for erectile dysfunction might not work or might be dangerous if you:
- Take nitrate drugs — commonly prescribed for chest pain (angina) — such as nitroglycerin, isosorbide mononitrate and isosorbide dinitrate
- Have very low blood pressure (hypotension) or uncontrolled high blood pressure (hypertension)
- Have severe liver disease
- Have kidney disease that requires dialysis
Other medications for erectile dysfunction include:
- Alprostadil self-injection.
- Alprostadil urethral suppository.
- Testosterone replacement.
Penis pumps, surgery and implants
If medications aren’t effective or appropriate in your case, your doctor might recommend a different treatment. Other treatments include:
- Penis pumps.
- Penile implants.
- Blood vessel surgery.
If your erectile dysfunction is caused by stress, anxiety or depression — or the condition is creating stress and relationship tension — your doctor might suggest that you, or you and your partner, visit a psychologist or counselor.
Lifestyle and home remedies
For many men, erectile dysfunction is caused or worsened by lifestyle choices. Here are some steps that might help:
- If you smoke, quit. If you have trouble quitting, get help. Try nicotine replacement, such as over-the-counter gum or lozenges, or ask your doctor about a prescription medication that can help you quit.
- Lose excess weight. Being overweight can cause — or worsen — erectile dysfunction.
- Include physical activity in your daily routine. Exercise can help with underlying conditions that play a part in erectile dysfunction in a number of ways, including reducing stress, helping you lose weight and increasing blood flow.
- Get treatment for alcohol or drug problems. Drinking too much or taking certain illegal drugs can worsen erectile dysfunction directly or by causing long-term health problems.
- Work through relationship issues. Consider couples or marriage counseling if you’re having trouble improving communication with your partner or working through problems on your own.
Before using any supplement, check with your doctor to make sure it’s safe for you — especially if you have chronic health conditions. Some alternative products that claim to work for erectile dysfunction can be dangerous. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued warnings about several types of “herbal viagra” because they contain potentially harmful drugs not listed on the label. The dosages might also be unknown, or they might have been contaminated during formulation.
Some of these drugs can interact with prescription drugs and cause dangerously low blood pressure. These products are especially dangerous for men who take nitrates.
The best way to prevent erectile dysfunction is to make healthy lifestyle choices and to manage any existing health conditions. For example:
- Work with your doctor to manage diabetes, heart disease or other chronic health conditions.
- See your doctor for regular checkups and medical screening tests.
- Stop smoking, limit or avoid alcohol, and don’t use illegal drugs.
- Exercise regularly.
- Take steps to reduce stress.
- Get help for anxiety, depression or other mental health concerns.