When you picture being sick, you probably think of symptoms like a runny nose, sore throat and gastrointestinal issues such as stomach pain and nausea.
In addition to affecting your respiratory system and digestive tract, many illnesses can also have a negative effect on your sexual health. Some can even contribute to issues such as a weak sex drive and even erectile dysfunction (ED).
Can being sick cause ED? The answer depends on the specific illness you have, as well as how your illness affects your overall health and well-being.
Below, we’ve explained what erectile dysfunction is, as well as how certain illnesses could affect your ability to get and maintain an erection.
We’ve also discussed what you can do to deal with erectile dysfunction when you’re feeling sick, from waiting until you feel better to using ED medication to improve blood flow to your penis and make maintaining an erection easier.
Erectile dysfunction, or ED, is a common issue that affects men of all ages and backgrounds. In fact, an estimated 30 million adult men in the United States alone are believed to be affected by some degree of erectile dysfunction.
Like other sexual health issues, erectile dysfunction can vary in severity. Some men with ED find it difficult to get an erection at all, while others might be able to get an erection but find it difficult to maintain an erection that’s firm or long-lasting enough for satisfying sex.
Erectile dysfunction can have a major impact on your sex life. It can also have a negative effect on your relationships and mental health. When severe, ED can potentially lead to mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.
Our full guide to erectile dysfunction goes into more detail about what you may experience if you have ED, as well as how erectile dysfunction is treated.
So, can getting sick cause erectile dysfunction? In many cases, yes. Getting and maintaining an erection may seem simple, but it actually involves a complex process of events that involve your endocrine system, nervous system and cardiovascular system.
When an illness disrupts any of these processes, it can interfere with your ability to feel aroused and/or maintain an erection.
Your endocrine system is your body’s production center for hormones. It consists of a network of glands and organs that produce the hormones your body depends on for numerous vital internal functions, such as growth, metabolism and sperm production.
One of the many hormones produced by your endocrine system is testosterone, a sex hormone that regulates your level of interest in sexual activity.
Although the link between testosterone and erectile dysfunction isn’t completely clear, research generally shows that low testosterone levels are associated with sexual health issues, including difficulty getting an erection.
Your nervous system consists of billions of nerve cells throughout your body. It’s responsible for transporting chemical messages between different areas of your body, including your brain and penis.
Because your nervous system plays a vital role in taking in and processing information through your senses, its critical for sexual arousal and functioning. In fact, erections typically begin with activity in your nervous system, which stimulates blood flow to your penis.
Finally, your vascular system, or circulatory system, consists of your heart and network of blood vessels. This system delivers nutrients and oxygen to your organs, tissues and cells in the form of oxygenated blood.
Erections start with a functional sex drive, which allows you to feel interested in sex, as well as a certain level of sexual stimulation, which triggers a response from your nerves.
This results in an increased level of blood flow to your penis, which is what allows your penis to become firm and enlarged during sexual activity. From start to finish, the process depends on optimal endocrine system, nervous system and cardiovascular system function.
So, how does being sick cause erectile dysfunction? Certain illnesses can affect these parts of your body and interfere with your sex drive, nerve function and blood flow. When this happens, you may find it more difficult than normal to get or maintain an erection.
Other illnesses may cause symptoms that make you feel uncomfortable and less interested in having sex than normal.
For example, can the flu cause erectile dysfunction? Influenza — a common respiratory illness that affects millions of American adults every year — often causes tiredness, headaches, fever and sore muscles — all symptoms that can get in the way of feeling interested in sex.
Being sick can also make you feel more stressed than normal — a known risk factor for erectile dysfunction. If you have depression or anxiety — both of which are linked to ED — feeling sick may make your psychological symptoms more severe and affect your sexual health.
These factors can all have an impact not just on your erections, but on your level of interest in sex, your energy levels and your general well-being.
One illness that’s directly linked to erectile dysfunction is COVID-19. Over the last year, several studies have found that men with COVID-19 have an elevated risk of developing difficulties with erections and sexual function.
For example, research published in the journal Sexual Medicine in 2022, which used data from more than 260 thousand men, found that men had an increased chance of developing ED after COVID-19 infection.
Researchers haven’t yet pinpointed why or how COVID-19 causes ED, but some suspect it may be linked to the long-term effects of COVID-19 on cardiovascular health, which include harming blood vessels throughout the body.
If you’ve recently been sick with COVID-19 and find it difficult to get or maintain an erection after recovering, it’s important to talk to your primary care provider.
Several chronic medical conditions, including heart disease and high blood pressure, are linked to erectile dysfunction. These conditions can potentially affect your nerves and vascular system, both of which are involved in erections and sexual function.
For example, known causes of ED include:
Heart and blood vessel disease
Atherosclerosis (clogged arteries)
Hypertension (high blood pressure)
Chronic kidney disease
Also important to know: can a hernia cause ED?
Unlike short-term illnesses, these conditions generally require ongoing treatment. If you have a chronic medical condition and have recently developed ED, it’s important to talk to your primary care provider about your symptoms.
Erectile dysfunction is almost always treatable, either through the use of medication or changes to your habits and lifestyle.
If you’re currently finding it difficult to develop or maintain an erection while you’re sick, try the treatment options below to improve your erections and sexual function.
If you’ve only started to experience erectile dysfunction since getting sick, it’s generally best to focus on getting better before worrying about your sexual performance.
It’s normal to go through a sexual “off” day every once in a while, and failing to get or maintain an erection while you’re also dealing with a cold, flu or other illness doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a long-term problem.
Before changing your lifestyle or using medication to treat ED, try to focus on recovering from your illness. This could mean:
Taking it easy for a few days and avoiding sex entirely.
Using over-the-counter pain relief or other medication.
Avoiding contact with other people until you feel healthy.
If necessary, visiting your primary care provider for help.
You might find that your sex drive and ability to get an erection return once your illness passes and you’re feeling healthy again.
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If you still have erectile dysfunction after your illness passes, you may want to consider using an ED medication such as sildenafil (the active ingredient in Viagra®), tadalafil (Cialis®), vardenafil (Levitra®) or avanafil (Stendra®) to improve your erections and sexual performance.
These medications, which are called PDE5 inhibitors, work by increasing blood flow to the soft, sponge-like erectile tissue inside your penis. This can make it easier for you to get an erection and maintain it when you feel sexually aroused.
ED medications are safe and effective for most men. However, they can cause side effects and drug interactions, including with some medications used to treat chronic illnesses. Our guide to the side effects of Viagra discusses these issues in more detail.
We offer several erectile dysfunction medications online following a consultation with a licensed healthcare provider who will determine if a prescription is appropriate.
Certain habits can affect your health and increase your risk of developing ED, potentially due to a chronic health condition.
To improve your general health and reduce the severity of erectile dysfunction, try the following healthy habits and lifestyle changes:
Keep yourself active by exercising for 30 minutes a day, even if it’s just a quick walk or bike ride around your neighborhood.
If you’re overweight, try to lose weight. Aim for a healthy body weight in the 18.5 to 24.9 body mass index (BMI) range.
Quit smoking, as nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes can affect your heart health and reduce blood flow throughout your body.
Eat a balanced diet that’s built around fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein sources and complex carbohydrates, all while limiting your intake of saturated fat and sodium.
Our guide to naturally protecting your erections shares other habits and techniques that you can use for better erections and sexual performance.
Being sick can affect your body in many ways, including by affecting your erections and general level of interest in sex.
When you’re sick, you may find that it’s harder to get and maintain an erection than normal. You may also feel fatigued, drained and less interested in sex than when you feel healthy. These are normal feelings and they often improve gradually as you get better.
If you have persistent erectile dysfunction that continues after you recover from your illness, you may want to consider using medication to improve your erections and sexual performance.
You can also learn more about dealing with ED in our full guide to the best treatment options for erectile dysfunction, which covers everything from medications to therapy, pelvic floor exercises, vacuum constriction devices and more.
Dr. Vicky Davis is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 20 years of experience in clinical practice, leadership and education.
Dr. Davis' expertise include direct patient care and many years working in clinical research to bring evidence-based care to patients and their families.
She is also an active member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.