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Could COVID-19 lead to erectile dysfunction?

Last year, I wrote about the panny being a boner killer, as in, it's done a huge number on many people's sex lives. But new research raises the possibility that COVID-19 could quite literally kill your boner. Based on a small University of Miami Miller School of Medicine study, COVID-19 might also act on the blood vessels in the penis, potentially playing a role in erectile dysfunction (ED). The findings appeared online in The World Journal of Men’s Health last Friday — but they come with some pretty big caveats that prevent us from saying that COVID-19 actually causes ED, for now.

Why did researchers decide to explore the connection between COVID-19 and ED in the first place? As they described in their paper, COVID-19 is thought to cause the inner lining of the blood vessels, known as the endothelium, to no longer function the way it's supposed to, which some scientists say could explain COVID-19's far-ranging effects. It turns out that the tissue in the penis that causes an erection is “rich in endothelial lined blood vessels,” they wrote — remember that properly functioning blood vessels are crucial to erections, filling up so that you get hard. All of this raises the question: Can COVID-19 also wreak havoc on the endothelium in the penis and contribute to ED?

To find out, the researchers looked at penile tissue from four 65- to 71-year-olds who had ED and had undergone surgery to insert a penile implant, per EurekAlert. One had mild COVID-19 symptoms eight months before the procedure, Yahoo! News said, and the other had been hospitalized for COVID-19 complications six months prior. The remaining two participants had no history of the disease before their surgeries.

Ramasamy and his team looked for signs of both the SARS-CoV-2 virus, according to EurekAlert, and the poor endothelial function that it’s thought to cause. As expected, they detected the virus in the penile tissue of the participants who’d gotten COVID-19, but not in those who hadn’t.

The researchers also saw signs of endothelial dysfunction in those who’d gotten COVID-19, but not in the COVID-19-free participants, EurekAlert said. They suspect that COVID-19 can lead to endothelial dysfunction, which, in turn, could result in ED.

“This suggests that men who develop COVID-19 infection should be aware that erectile dysfunction could be an adverse effect of the virus, and they should go to a physician if they develop ED symptoms," Ranjith Ramasamy, study author and associate professor and director of the Miller School's Reproductive Urology Program, told EurekAlert.

We need to interpret these results in light of some important caveats, though. First of all, as the researchers themselves pointed out in their paper, they looked at a total of only four people. They were also older, which makes sense given that ED is associated with aging, but it also prevents us from generalizing the findings to a wider swath of the population. (Younger people with penises can get ED, too.)

The researchers also noted that they didn’t objectively test whether participants already had ED before getting COVID-19, making it even harder to conclude whether COVID-19 can lead to ED. Ramasamy told EurekAlert that his team “found that men who previously did not complain of erectile dysfunction developed pretty severe erectile dysfunction after the onset of COVID-19 infection." But “not complaining” of ED doesn’t rule it out as definitively as a diagnostic test would.

Basically, we can’t say at this point whether COVID-19 can cause ED, and we won’t know for sure until scientists conduct larger, more rigorous studies. Just consider the possibility as yet another item in a long list of reasons to get vaccinated if you haven’t already, and continue being careful.