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FACTCHEKER: Can COVID-19 or the vaccine cause erectile dysfunction?

A man receives COVID-19 vaccine at Kasangati Health Center, Wakiso District, Central Region, Uganda, March 16, 2021. Uganda on March 10 rolled out a coronavirus vaccination exercise in phases after the country receives the first shipment of the AstraZeneca vaccines on March 5. (PHOTO /Xinhua)

If you’ve been following news about the pandemic, you may have heard some claims that COVID-19 can cause erectile dysfunction (ED). For an infection that can lead to breathing problems, ED may appear to be an odd complication. And now that vaccines are available in the United States, you may be wondering if vaccination can also cause ED. Here’s what we know so far.

COVID-19 and erectile dysfunction

review of available research studies was published in June 2020 about male reproductive health and COVID-19. It suggested that COVID-19 may lead to ED. A more recent study found that COVID-19 may not only lead to ED, but having ED may put men at greater risk for getting COVID-19. This may be because both have similar risk factors, such as obesity, age, and diabetes.

Here are some ways that the coronavirus may raise your risk for ED.

Lower testosterone levels

The review mentions a small study that found men infected with the coronavirus had lower testosterone levels, but the researchers didn’t know if this was a temporary dip or a long-term problem. Lower testosterone levels in the body could lead to ED.

Damage to the penis

COVID-19 can cause swelling and inflammation in the penis. It can also damage blood vessels and lower or prevent blood from reaching tissues and organs. If blood can’t reach your penis, having an erection will be more difficult.

Heart problems

Blood vessel damage and blood clots are common problems with COVID-19, and they can lead to heart attacks or problems with the heart beating correctly. The virus can also cause inflammation of the heart muscle. This can cause heart damage and can lower how much blood can reach the penis when having or maintaining an erection.

Lung problems

Damage to the lungs is another possible long-term problem from COVID-19. This can cause trouble breathing and less oxygen entering your body. Less oxygen to the penis could make it difficult for you to have an erection, leading to possible ED.

Mental health troubles

Finally, it goes without saying that coping with the pandemic has caused many people to have trouble sleeping, depression, and anxiety. Those who are infected and in the hospital could have ever worse mental health problems. This heavy burden can play an important role in sexual activity and desire and raise the risk of ED in COVID-19 survivors.

A recent study published in December 2020 looked at men in Turkey who visited urologists (providers who specialize in the bladder, urination, and the penis) before the pandemic and during the pandemic, and compared how frequently certain health issues appeared. The study found that sexual health issues, including ED, were more common among men during the pandemic period.

It is important to note that this study did not look at if the men had been infected with the coronavirus. The authors stated that sexual health problems could have been due to COVID-19 or due to the mental health burden from the pandemic, but they could not say for sure if COVID-19 had a direct role.

The CDC has stated that certain long-term problems from COVID-19 should be expected and will need ongoing care, but ED is not listed as one of those problems at this time. Studies are underway to determine if ED will be a long-term issue. A publication in the Lancet looking at survivors 6 months after an infection did not list sexual issues as one of the problems affecting men. However, fatigue was listed, and this could have an impact on sexual health. Taking this all into consideration, stress and possibly infection may cause you to have trouble with your sexual health, including problems like ED.

A medical worker shows a vial of the COVID-19 vaccine at Kasangati Health Center, Wakiso District, Central Region, Uganda, March 16, 2021. Uganda on March 10 rolled out a coronavirus vaccination exercise in phases after the country receives the first shipment of the AstraZeneca vaccines on March 5. (PHOTO /Xinhua)

Can the vaccine cause erectile dysfunction?

Given the concern that COVID-19 may cause ED, you may be worried about the vaccines causing ED. Currently, the clinical trial data from the ModernaPfizer-BioNTech, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines show that the vaccines may cause pain or swelling where you received the vaccine and side effects like nausea, vomiting, headache, chills, or fever. But, none of the manufacturers listed any issues related to sexual health or ED in their reports.

Will the COVID-19 vaccine affect sperm count or male fertility?

At this time, we do not know how the COVID-19 vaccines impact sperm count. Several small studies have found a lower sperm count in men who got sick with COVID-19, but we don’t know if this is temporary or a long-term problem. Researchers at the University of Miami are now starting a study to see if the vaccines can impact sperm count or male fertility, though the researchers do not expect to see such problems.

Though we cannot say for sure that the vaccines don’t affect sperm count or fertility, based on how they work in the body, it is unlikely. The vaccine makes the body produce a protein that essentially trains your immune system to respond and fight if the coronavirus enters your body.

The bottom line

It’s possible for ED to be caused by the virus or by the overall stress we’re all feeling from the pandemic. But so far, there are no reports of the vaccines affecting men’s sexual health or sperm count. The vaccines will help us get through the pandemic more quickly, lower our overall mental health burden, and help prevent possible long-term problems caused by the coronavirus.

Timothy Aungst, PharmD, is an associate professor of pharmacy practice at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. He blogs at thedigitalapothecary.com about digital health.
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