As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases soars past 3 million globally, and our understanding of its health impact evolves, gaps in our knowledge are rapidly filled by myths.
Healthy Male’s Medical Director Prof Robert McLachlan, and Scientific and Clinical Committee member and Director of the Freemasons Foundation Centre for Men's Health, Prof Gary Wittert, provide insight to help understand the emerging information about the impact of COVID-19 on men’s health.
Effects of COVID-19 on men’s reproductive health
An early report published on a Chinese Government website claimed that COVID-19 damages male fertility, causing concern for those planning families, as well as reproductive specialists. The report was withdrawn but its message still lingers.
Prof Robert McLachlan says there is no suggestion that the coronavirus directly effects the male reproductive system — “It’s a respiratory virus, from the same virus family as the common cold [although its effects are more severe] — there’s no theoretical reason or evidence for it getting into or damaging the male reproductive tract”.
Prof McLachlan appreciates that people might be confused because there is a simple reason the virus may affect male fertility in the short term. “If you are sick or feverish due to anything, from the flu, pneumonia or COVID-19, a temporary reduction in sperm count is likely,” he says.
Although male fertility may decline for several months after a fever, it will recover. Like in any circumstances, if men are concerned about their fertility they should speak to their doctor.
“The decline is temporary and there is no need for men to worry about having their sperm frozen. Their sperm count will jump back up.” Prof McLachlan says.
Sex differences in COVID-19
As the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed, it has become clear that men are more likely to die from COVID-19 than women, even though infection rates are the similar between the sexes.
But are the biological differences between men and women great enough to explain such a difference?
“The real problem is men are dying in far greater numbers than women, and men are more severely affected by coronavirus” says Prof Gary Wittert.
One reason for this that is frequently discussed in the general public is that the male sex hormone, testosterone, might be to blame for men’s higher rates of severe illness and death from COVID-19. “The problem with testosterone is it is used as a catch-all and a blame-all,” Prof Wittert says. “Testosterone is not the problem — if anything, there is a lack of testosterone in some of the COVID infected men caused by chronic disease, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity, as well as testosterone levels declining in men as they age, that’s the problem.” Prof Wittert attests that serious research is required to address these questions about the burden of chronic disease.
Until the complexities of sex differences in the severity of COVID-19 are properly understood, we should use the reliable information that we do have. With all health concerns, men should seek the advice of their doctor early to minimize their risk of chronic disease, which we know will not only improve their health and wellbeing overall, but will reduce their risk of being severely affected by COVID-19.