What is erectile dysfunction?

If you’re having difficulty getting or maintaining an erection, this is called erectile dysfunction. It’s not a disease, but a symptom of another problem, which might be physical, psychological, or a mixture of both.

Erectile dysfunction is very common. 

An Australian survey showed that at least one in five men over the age of 40 has an erection problem, and about one in ten men are unable to have erections.

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Is erectile dysfunction just part of getting old?

It’s common for a healthy older man and his partner to still want to have sex, but as you get older, muscle tone in the penis reduces, so erectile problems become more common.

Understanding what’s normal as you get older is important to avoid frustration and concern. There’s no age when you’re ‘too old’ to get help with your erection or other sexual problems.

What causes erectile dysfunction?

Many things can affect your ability to get and keep an erection. When erectile dysfunction happens, there might be several contributing issues, and it’s usually a combination of physical and psychological factors. Sometimes, there’s no clear reason for erectile dysfunction. However, in most cases there’s a physical problem behind it.

Causes include:

  • Psychosocial problems, such as performance anxiety, stress, mental health issues, and relationship problems

  • Reduced blood-flow, sometimes resulting from a narrowing of the arteries 

  • Use of drugs, alcohol and some medicines, including those used to treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol, depression, and prostate cancer 

  • Interference with nerve function caused by spinal cord trauma, multiple sclerosis, diabetic neuropathy, pelvic surgery, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease 

  • Problems with blood vessel function, including diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, and sleep apnoea 

  • Additional problems that can cause erectile dysfunction include thyroid disease, growth hormone conditions, and an excess of cortisone.

What can I do?

If you’re having erection problems, your local doctor or sexual health clinic are good first points of contact. 

It’s important to talk openly to a doctor about any problems you have with sexual functioning. Even if you don’t want to have sex, erectile dysfunction might be a symptom of a medical condition, so it’s a good idea to seek professional advice. For many, this is a sensitive issue to discuss, but based on the stats above, you won’t be the first patient to appear in a doctor’s rooms needing help with erection problems.

A doctor will most likely talk to you about maintaining good general health. This means paying attention to things like body weight, exercise, and smoking. 

Other common causes include anxiety or relationship problems, so for some men it can help to talk through these issues with a trained counsellor.

Lifestyle changes such as sensible eating and regular exercise can help prevent problems like heart disease and diabetes that cause erectile dysfunction.

Early diagnosis and treatment of associated conditions like diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol may prevent or delay erectile dysfunction, or stop the problem from getting more serious.

What treatments are there?

Usually there won’t be one specific treatment that helps. For some men, there’s a reversible underlying cause that can be treated. For others, erectile dysfunction can’t be cured, but it can be managed.

There are a variety of treatments available to help you get and maintain erections. Some treatments include tablet medicines, external devices or penile injections. Oral medication, such as Viagra, is often helpful, although it can have possible side effects. For men who don’t have success with these treatments, surgery may be an option.

Your doctor’s appointment

Questions to ask your doctor

  • What treatment options are available for erectile dysfunction?

  • Could counselling or sex therapy help treat my condition?

  • Will the treatment start working immediately?

Things to think about before your appointment

  • When did you notice a change in your erections?

  • How often can you not have sex due to an unsatisfactory erection? Is it every time or just sometimes?

  • Have you tried any treatments already?

  • Have you recently had any other health problems or started any new medication?

Email these questions to yourself to take into your doctor's appointment.

Resources

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Information guide

Erectile dysfunction information guide

Erectile Dysfunction Fact Sheet Image Tile

Fact sheet

Erectile dysfunction fact sheet

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Clinical summary guide

Erectile dysfunction clinical summary guide (#9)

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Erectile dysfunction and general men's health

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Erectile dysfunction: A comprehensive guide

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What are the causes of erectile dysfunction? How can it be prevented?

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What are the causes of erectile dysfunction? How is erectile dysfunction diagnosed?

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What are the treatment options for erectile dysfunction?

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Erectile dysfunction