Is 'COVID Penis' a Real Thing?
We already know COVID can cause a plethora of mysterious symptoms—itchy hands and feet, lack of taste and smell, swelling of the tongue and hallucinations—but could it somehow affect your penis, too? Tough news, everyone: It looks like it’s possible to acquire erectile dysfunction from COVID-19, according to a new study published in the World Journal of Men’s Health.
Researchers from the University of Miami collected penile tissue from a small sample of four men who were already undergoing surgery for penis implants—a treatment for severe erectile dysfunction (ED)—including two who were previously diagnosed with COVID and two who weren’t. In the tissue of the men who had faced COVID, they found viral particles and viral RNA. Translation: COVID can hang around in your penis long after you contract it, potentially causing issues like ED.
Researchers also analyzed the men’s blood samples to look for issues with the endothelial cells, which line blood vessels throughout the body and regulate exchanges between the bloodstream and surrounding tissues. Since COVID is thought to attack endothelial cells, the researchers expected men with a history of COVID to have lower endothelial cell counts—and sure enough, they did.
"Due to the high prevalence of endothelial cells in the penis, we believe that COVID-19 can enter cells in this location as well," explained Eliyahu Kresch, an author of the study, "and may cause erectile dysfunction via endothelial dysfunction."
If you want to do everything you can to avoid COVID-related ED, get vaccinated, continuing to wear masks and practicing social distancing.
But there’s more bad news: COVID might potentially lead to other erectile issues, too. "It can cause hyper inflammation throughout the body, especially in the heart and surrounding muscles," explained Waqas Ahmad Buttar, a family physician at Sachet Infusions in Toronto. "Blood supply to the penis can become blocked or narrowed as a result of a new or worsened vascular condition caused by the virus."
In a frustrating catch-22, mental health issues caused or exacerbated by COVID-19, such as anxiety and depression, could worsen bedroom problems like ED and low libido, according to a July 2020 study published in the Journal of Endocrinological Investigation. "Depression can cause ED even when a man is completely comfortable in sexual situations, and drugs used to treat depression may also cause ED," Buttar said, adding that anxiety is one of the leading causes of erectile dysfunction.
If you want to do everything you can to avoid COVID-related ED, Kresch recommended getting vaccinated, continuing to wear masks and practicing social distancing. For those unlucky enough to have already developed it, it’s unclear at this point whether treatment will be different compared to ED with other causes. If you’re experiencing ED and you’ve ever had COVID, Kresch recommended mentioning this to your urologist so your care can be as well-informed as possible.
The results of this study are sobering, but there’s no need to panic just yet. Not everybody with COVID is going to have sexual problems—"We’re still unsure about how severe the infection has to be in order to develop ED," Kresch said—and it’s important to remember this study only looked at four people. "We’re still unable to tell how common something like this is in the general population," Kresch continued. "These investigations are still in their infancy."