Dealing with erectile dysfunction (ED) can be a stressful experience, especially if you’re a young, fit, healthy guy with no other obvious health problems. But when you start to understand how erections work, you’ll realize why ED can happen at any age.
Getting hard is a complex, multi-step process that requires your brain, hormones, circulatory system and numerous other parts of your body to work in unison. And while you might assume older men are more likely to have health problems leading to erectile dysfunction, it can (and often does) affect younger men.
If you’re in your 20s and sometimes find it difficult to get an erection, you’re not alone. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 30 million men in the United States are affected by erectile dysfunction — that’s roughly one in every five adult men.
The data doesn’t lie. Recent census data shows that more than a third of the population is over the age of 45, but in a small 2013 study, researchers noted that one out of every four men seeking treatment for erectile dysfunction is below the age of 40.
More concerning, about half of the men under the age of 40 in the study suffered from severe erectile dysfunction, meaning they were unable to attain or maintain an erection firm enough for penetrative sex.
If you’re in your 20s and find it hard to get an erection (or lose your erection easily), it’s best to talk to a healthcare provider to find out what’s causing it and what you can do to treat it. But there are a few more things you might want to know before starting the convo.
Below, we’ll explain how and why erectile dysfunction can occur in your 20s, as well as what you can do about it. We’ll also look at public statistics to see how prevalent ED is for men in their 20s, along with factors that may increase your risk of dealing with ED.
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There’s no singular cause of erectile dysfunction. Erection issues can be caused by a range of factors, from physical ones like cardiovascular health issues to psychological ones like performance anxiety, depression or potentially even overuse of pornography.
ED can signal that something else isn’t right in your body. As we’ll explain below, erectile dysfunction is often caused by issues like cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and other potentially serious health conditions and medical conditions.
Research also indicates that erectile dysfunction is a growing problem. A 1999 study published in BJU International concluded that ED would likely affect 322 million men worldwide by 2025 — an increase of about 170 million compared to the mid-90s.
By talking to a healthcare provider about your ED, you can identify what’s causing it and take action before the underlying issue becomes more serious — and some potential causes are already pretty serious.
Erections are all about healthy blood flow. If you have high blood pressure (aka hypertension), you may have an elevated risk of developing erectile dysfunction due to the damage long-term high blood pressure can cause to your blood vessels.
This damage can affect blood flow throughout your body, making it difficult for blood to flow into the soft tissue of your penis when you’re aroused.
Some research also indicates that high blood pressure reduces your body’s production of sex hormones like testosterone — which plays a major role in regulating your sex drive. Studies have found that high levels of total and bioavailable testosterone may be associated with a stronger sex drive and better erectile function.
As we learn more about what causes erectile dysfunction, science has observed a pretty clear link between obesity and ED.
ED is more common in people with cardiovascular disease or heart disease — a class of diseases that’s significantly more common in people who are overweight or obese. And yes, it can happen in your 20s.
There’s also evidence that losing weight can boost sexual performance and help get rid of erectile dysfunction. In an Italian study, overweight and obese men who lost an average of 33 pounds in two years reported improved erectile function.
Like high blood pressure, obesity is also associated with a lower level of testosterone — a key hormone for healthy erections and sexual performance. We explained the relationship between ED and low testosterone levels in more detail in our guide to weight and erection quality.
Diabetes is one of the main risk factors for ED early or late in life. It can damage blood vessels and affect your blood flow, making it more difficult for your body to supply blood to the soft tissue of your penis. It can also affect the nerves in and around your penis, potentially affecting sexual stimulation.
As we explained in our guide to diabetes and ED, these factors all contribute to an elevated risk of erectile dysfunction if you have diabetes. If you’re prediabetic or have other symptoms of diabetes, you may want to talk to a healthcare professional about whether it’s connected.
Your drinking habit might be one of the lifestyle changes you need to make as a college student or a recent grad. Not surprisingly, alcohol isn’t great for erectile health, and while a younger man’s hangover may not last as long, the effects of drinking on his erections can still add up.
While a drink or two is unlikely to hinder your sexual performance permanently, drinking alcohol excessively can affect your erections in both the short and long term.
In a 2007 study, researchers found that men with alcohol dependence syndrome had a high rate of sexual dysfunction. Of the 100 men who participated in the study, 72 percent had one or several forms of sexual dysfunction, with erectile dysfunction among the most common.
A separate study from Hong Kong found that people who consumed more than three drinks per week were more likely to report erectile dysfunction than those who didn’t drink at all.
So if you’re a heavy or frequent drinker — or even just enjoy a drink socially — there’s a risk your drinking could be a contributing factor to erectile dysfunction.
Young men are young enough to remember the anti-drug campaigns that bombarded them in school — but we’re pretty sure that if those campaigns included ED, they’d have more lasting effects on impressionable young minds.
Using illicit drugs could increase your risk of developing erectile dysfunction and other sexual issues. Although in-depth research in this area is limited, there are clinical reports of erectile dysfunction in people who abuse drugs such as cocaine.
Even recently legalized recreational drugs, such as cannabis, are closely linked to erectile dysfunction and other sexual dysfunctions in some research.
Smoking is closely linked to erectile dysfunction — and smokers are at an erectile disadvantage at any age. In a 2015 scientific review, researchers noted that cigarette smokers have an elevated risk of developing erectile dysfunction compared to people who don’t smoke.
Cigarettes and other tobacco products can damage your cardiovascular system. Specifically, the chemicals in cigarettes and other tobacco products can damage your heart and blood vessels, increasing your risk of developing high blood pressure and other cardiovascular conditions often linked to ED.
The nicotine in cigarettes can also cause your arteries to narrow, affecting the flow of blood throughout your body. Since erections are all about healthy blood flow, this isn’t a good thing for your sexual performance.
Our full guide to smoking and ED goes into more detail about the effects of cigarettes on erections and sexual health.
Not every problem that affects young men is physical, however. In fact, sexual performance anxiety is a common problem affecting up to 25 percent of men.
With this condition, you might feel nervous or anxious about your appearance or sexual performance before and during sex. Performance anxiety can affect men and women of all ages. It can even hit young, otherwise healthy men who don’t see it coming.
As we explained in our guide to sexual performance anxiety and ED, feeling anxious or nervous before and during sex is closely associated with sexual dysfunction.
Call it a problem of inexperience, but if you use condoms incorrectly, struggle to put them on the right way or run into other problems while using this form of contraception, it’s far from uncommon for you to lose your erection. This is known as a condom-associated erection problem (CAEP).
CAEP can occur while you’re putting on a condom or just before, like if you feel anxious about making a mistake during condom application. It can also occur during sex if your condom isn’t put on properly, feels overly loose or tight or reduces sexual stimulation.
Erectile dysfunction caused by condom issues is more common than you may think, especially for men in their 20s. In a 2015 study involving 479 men aged 18 to 24, almost 14 percent had CAEP while putting on a condom.
Another 16 percent had CAEP during penis-in-vagina sexual intercourse, while roughly 32 percent had CAEP while putting the condom on and while having sex.
One thing that might affect your ability to get an erection is porn. Though studies are limited, some research has found that watching porn can change the way your brain responds to sexual stimulation. This may result in a form of ED referred to as porn-induced erectile dysfunction.
Unlike some causes listed above, porn-induced ED isn’t caused by a disease or physical factor. Instead, it might be due to changes in the way you respond to sex that result from the limitless novelty, quantity and unique potential for escalation of internet-based porn.
As a younger guy, ED can feel like an embarrassing problem. After all, most guys who feel too young to struggle to get hard might deny there’s a problem until it’s too big to ignore.
We suspect one reason for this is fear of the unknown. So, how do you treat ED? It’s pretty simple — some of the most effective options are highlighted below.
Talking to a healthcare provider is essential to root out problems like diabetes, cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure.
A healthcare provider might prescribe medication or recommend another type of treatment that may help to improve your health and sexual function. They can also help you identify medications that might have ED as a side effect.
If you’re not seeing the results you want, always talk with your healthcare provider about the ED medications you use and see if other options are available.
Prescription medications for ED may sound scary to a 20-year-old, but as erectile dysfunction treatments go, they’re actually among the safest and most reliable options.
These medications (called PDE5 inhibitors) work by inhibiting certain enzymes that may prevent your erection from getting started — but they’ve come a long way since your dad’s little blue pill days. For instance, our chewable ED meds hard mints make taking ED medication easy and convenient.
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If you’re trying to fix ED or learn how to prevent ED, your lifestyle may have the biggest clues to offer about what needs attention.
Making changes to your habits and lifestyle to improve your health may help treat erectile dysfunction and boost your sexual performance. If you’re in your 20s and have symptoms of ED, try making the following changes:
If you’re obese or overweight, try to lose weight.
Avoid consuming too much alcohol.
If you smoke, quit.
Eliminate your drug use — for ED treatment and your general well-being.
One thing you may also want to consider is pelvic floor exercises. There’s some evidence that pelvic floor exercises may help improve erectile function.
We dug into the science behind these exercises and put together a list of basic movements you can do at home in our guide to ED exercises.
You can put your mental health first in several ways, including:
Taking steps to manage stress and anxiety. Treatment options such as counseling, sex therapy and sexual performance anxiety therapy may help you get over performance anxiety and other psychological causes of ED.
Working on low self-esteem. Self-esteem issues may cause some penile problems in the form of performance anxiety for young people engaging in sexual activity.
Limiting your porn consumption. If you think porn might be affecting your erections and sexual performance, try watching it less than you normally do — or make an effort to avoid watching porn entirely. It may also help to talk to a therapist.
Talking to your partner. Sometimes, talking to your partner can help reduce anxiety and improve intimacy in the bedroom. Our guide to talking to your partner about ED explains how to make sexual performance-focused conversations easier.
And if you’re already dealing with mental health issues, remember that some antidepressants may cause ED — something you’ll want to discuss with a healthcare provider. But don’t discontinue using them without medical advice.
Although erectile dysfunction is more prevalent in older men, it’s normal and far from uncommon to experience difficulty getting or maintaining an erection in your 20s.
Dealing with ED can be stressful, especially when it affects budding relationships or a sex life that’s newer than your car. Here are some fast facts about the issue:
Yes, ED can affect men in their 20s.
One common problem for young men is psychological ED, which doesn’t have a physical component.
Luckily, almost all cases of ED are treatable with a combination of FDA-approved medications and lifestyle changes.
If you’re in your 20s and have ED, don’t be afraid of talking to a healthcare provider. You’re not alone in your problem, and they can help you understand your options. We can help in the meantime.
Concerned about erectile dysfunction? Our guide to the most common treatments for erectile dysfunction goes into greater detail about the options available for treating ED and improving your sexual performance.
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Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.