3 Common—and 4 Uncommon—Risks to Men's Sexual Health
Sexual health information is everywhere these days, both quality info and the not-so-high-quality kind that's widespread on social media platforms. Even with all this access to so much information, though, certain lesser-known threats to our sexual health and fertility may slip under the radar.
At the same time, the seriousness of certain sexual health risks that "everyone knows about" may go ignored.
Here are three of the more common risks to men's sexual health and fertility, as well as a handful of risks that aren't always recognized as threats.
What are the biggest risks to men's sexual health?
When we talk about threats to sexual health, we're often talking about systemic problems. That is to say, if you're having a problem with how your penis works, it's not necessarily about your penis.
In modern society, we tend to view medicine as slapping on a bandage or taking a pill to alleviate the most obvious symptom we can see. In reality, lots of problems you might have in other parts of your body can affect how your penis functions.
"Sexual health is health," said Justin Dubin, M.D., a urologist and men's health specialist with Memorial Healthcare System in South Florida. "So sexual health problems, in general, can be a warning sign or a result of other health issues: diabetes, heart issues, infections, depression, anxiety, testosterone issues, obesity, other lifestyle issues—you name it. Having ED is the canary in the coal mine."
Common sexual health issues
Three of the most common issues that can affect sexual health are cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes. They work against us in different ways.
Heart disease and vascular problems are strongly associated with erectile dysfunction (ED). A vital component of getting an erection is good blood flow to the penis, and issues such as atherosclerosis and high blood pressure hamper it.
Obesity is a big risk factor for ED. One study indicated 79 percent of men who presented with ED were clinically obese, and obesity hampers your heart's ability to pump blood. Plus, it's a comorbidity for another risk factor, diabetes.
Diabetes causes a condition called diabetic neuropathy, which affects nerve endings and can result in numbness, tingling and loss of sensation. Along with blood flow, nerves are crucial for the penis to receive the signals from the brain and nervous system to get erect.
"You need to have good nerves in your penis," Dubin said. "People [with diabetes] who have bad sensation in their feet or fingers or their eyesight, well, the nerves in the penis are very small as well, and poorly controlled diabetes can cause ED."
Less common risks to sexual health
Four of the less obvious issues that can affect your sexual health include smoking, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), Peyronie's disease and mental health.
The dangers associated with smoking often focus on the lungs and heart, and rightly so. However, a lesser-known effect of smoking is that it's associated with ED.
"Smoking and ED are linked to overall cardiovascular health," said Neel Parekh, M.D., a men's fertility and sexual health specialist with Cleveland Clinic. "It's associated with cardiovascular disease, so that's another reason why it can make it more difficult to achieve an erection. It can even affect fertility; smoking has a negative effect on how well the sperm swim."
When it comes to fertility, another little-known issue some guys may encounter is that sexually transmitted infections can affect your sperm. An STI can travel up the urinary tract and cause problems in the rest of your reproductive system in ways that may affect you long after you've taken your antibiotics and the symptoms have gone away.
"Chlamydia and different bacterial infections can lead to epididymitis—the inflammation of the epididymis—which is where sperm is stored," Parekh said. "These STDs can cause scarring of the epididymis or vas deferens and cause blockages for guys, preventing sperm from traveling through."
Another issue that can fly under the radar is Peyronie's disease. It's a buildup of fibrous plaque or scarring in the penis that may result in a lump or new curvature that wasn't there before. It's thought to affect 1 in 10 men and may come on suddenly due to overenthusiastic sexual activity or over time through buildup. It can also cause erections to be painful during the acute phase.
"Peyronie's disease is another uncommon disease that some guys will let go unchecked," Parekh said. "A painful lump in the penis can lead to worsening curvature to the point where they can't penetrate. Some guys will kind of ignore it for a while; maybe they're embarrassed by it and they don't want to tell anybody."
It's an old trope: The biggest sex organ in the body is the brain. If your emotional state isn't good, it can have a profound impact on sexual function.
Don't forget that some antidepressants have a negative effect on sexual function, too, so it's important to talk with your healthcare provider and make sure you address both mental health and sexual health.
"Mental health is health, too, just like sexual health," Dubin said. "Depression, anxiety and medications that treat depression and anxiety can cause ED. I always quote the great Robin Williams: 'God gave man a brain and a penis, and only enough blood to control one at a time.' So if you're up in your head, your penis is just not going to work. It's just not."
A wide variety of health issues can affect your sexual health and fertility. But perhaps the main takeaway should be that instead of trying to list all the possible factors that could specifically affect your penis, try to remember that the penis is just one part of the intricate and complex machine that is your body. Mess with one part of the network and it's likely to have downstream effects. Take care of your body, and it'll take care of you.
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