What’s the Meaning of ‘Erectile Dysfunction’?
What does it mean if you have erectile dysfunction (ED)?
Last reviewed: 12 Mar 2019
Erectile dysfunction is when you regularly have trouble getting or keeping erections
Although erectile dysfunction isn't a serious health problem on its own, it can be a sign of serious underlying health problems
You can get treatment for erectile dysfunction itself and the causes of erectile dysfunction too
Erectile dysfunction doesn't mean you definitely have problems with testosterone or sexual attraction
Erectile dysfunction is a real medical condition, with diagnoses, treatments, and potentially serious health complications. Even so, it's not always discussed as openly as it should be.
Understanding what erectile dysfunction really is can help you recognise it if it happens to you or a partner and can help you figure out the steps you can take to manage it effectively.
What does having erectile dysfunction mean?
What does it mean? – erectile dysfunction (ED) is when a person has difficulty getting or keeping an erection long enough to satisfactorily enjoy sex. It’s one of the most commonly reported forms of sexual dysfunction, and is sometimes known as impotence.
Around half of all men aged between 40 and 70 years old experience ED to some degree throughout their lives, and it’s usually nothing to worry about. Occasional problems getting or keeping erections, especially in times of high stress or anxiety is normal. It can happen to anyone with a penis – gay, bi, or straight, cis or transgender.
Medically speaking, the definition for ED isn’t exact. It’s generally considered to be the failure to get an erection around 50% of the time or more.
Is it a serious concern? – erectile dysfunction isn’t damaging to your physical health or a serious physical condition on its own, however it is sometimes the sign of an underlying health condition. If it keeps happening, or if it becomes be a problem for either you or your sexual partner(s), you should book an appointment with your GP to work out the root cause and discuss your treatment options.
It can also cause serious emotional difficulties so it’s not something you should avoid dealing with. Erectile dysfunction can have a big impact on your quality of life and there are a range of treatment options available.
Does having erectile dysfunction mean you can get treatment?
Yes – like most other forms of sexual dysfunction, there are several treatment options available for ED. However, different types of ED treatment will work better, or be more suitable, for some than others. For example – medication won’t be right for everyone.
You could get the following types of treatment for ED:
- Blood flow medication – e.g. PDE-5 inhibitors, to help improve erections by increasing blood flow to the penis
- Hormone replacement therapy – testosterone, to correct any hormone imbalances which could be causing the ED
- Lifestyle advice – weight loss, eating healthily, getting enough sleep, taking exercise, quit smoking, and working to reduce stress or anxiety levels
- Psychological treatment – counselling, CBT or sex therapy, to work on any emotional issues that could be causing the ED
How can you get medical treatment? – in order to get effective medical treatment for ED, you will need to have an assessment by your GP. This is to find out the root cause, and to work out which forms of medical treatment are safe and suitable for you to take. You can only get medical ED treatment like Viagra or Sildenafil with a prescription from a licensed doctor.
What treatment can you get without assessment? – you don’t need to have a medical diagnosis to try alternative ED treatment, like exercise or lifestyle changes. Anyone can help to reduce their chances of ED by living healthily, cutting back on smoking and drinking, and by practising mindful or de-stressing techniques. However, an assessment from a doctor is the best way to find treatment options that work for you.
Does erectile dysfunction mean something is wrong?
Not necessarily – having erectile dysfunction is so common. It doesn’t necessarily mean that anything serious is wrong. It could simply be a standalone issue, a one-off problem, or something that you have to deal with throughout your life.
It can be a warning sign of other conditions – in some cases, ED is a sign of a more serious health condition, like diabetes or a heart condition, or a serious mental health or emotional problem. If this applies to you, your ED will be a regular issue. It’s important to make an appointment to see your GP if ED keeps happening.
It doesn’t mean you’re infertile – a lot of men worry that having ED means that they are infertile, and won’t be able to have children naturally. This is a common misconception – ED on its own is not a cause of infertility, or vice versa. If you’re worried about infertility, the only way to check is by having a proper fertility test.
Does erectile dysfunction mean you’re not aroused?
No – having ED doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not aroused. To get an erection, you will need to be sexually stimulated. However, being aroused sometimes isn’t enough to get or keep an erection sufficient for sex if you have ED.
They are 2 different situations – erectile dysfunction is defined as the difficulty getting or keeping your erection, whereas a low sex drive is when you have less interest in sex, or decreased libido. Both are common problems, but they aren’t the same thing.
They can still occur together – having ED doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not attracted to the person you want to sleep with. If ED is unexpected, consider the factors that could have caused it. Are you especially tired this week? Do you want to have sex? Are you having any relationship and/or trust issues? Are you stressed or anxious about work?
Communication is key for arousal problems – if you are having ED or arousal problems in your relationship, the best thing to do is to talk about it with your partner(s). Open discussion is the best way to build trust and intimacy. If you want advice about ED, ask your GP if you can be referred to a psychosexual therapist on the NHS, or visit your local sexual health clinic for specialist support.
Does erectile dysfunction mean I have low testosterone?
In most cases, no – having ED doesn’t mean that you have low testosterone. However, sometimes (in rarer cases) ED is caused by low testosterone levels.
Aren’t testosterone levels lower in older men? – having low testosterone levels in older men is sometimes known as the ‘andropause’ (or the ‘male menopause’). This is a common disorder that most regularly affects men who are middle-aged or older. The andropause could potentially cause ED, however, it’s important to remember that ED is generally much more common in older men and isn’t usually related to testosterone levels.
Do erectile dysfunction treatments usually involve testosterone? – no, most commonly ED is not related to your testosterone levels. This is why the most common medical treatment options are PDE-5 inhibitors like Sildenafil, which improve blood flow to the penis. However, occasionally, having hormone replacement therapy is the medical treatment for ED.
How can I check my testosterone levels? – the best way to work out whether your ED is caused by low testosterone is to visit your GP for a diagnosis, or order a test kit from an online healthcare provider like Zava. This is always advised if ED happens to you regularly, or is causing you problems in your relationship.
Is erectile dysfunction related to alcohol or drugs?
Yes – ED is commonly caused by exessive alcohol consumption (more than 14 units of alcohol per week) or drug use. Both can be factors in causing ED and other types of sexual dysfunction.
Cutting down on drug and alcohol use can help – as a general rule, try to avoid drinking too much alcohol (more than 14 units a week) and recreational drug use. Cutting down on both will drastically reduce your chances of having ED.
It can also be a side effect of your current medication – there are certain legally-prescribed medications that can also cause ED as a side effect. Talk to your GP if you believe that your medication is causing ED, and they may suggest a change of treatment.
Dr Nicholas Antonakopoulos graduated from the University of London in 2006. He did his postgraduate training in hospitals in the London area, and he trained for four years in Trauma and Orthopaedic Surgery before completing his training in General practice in 2015.Meet our doctors
Last reviewed: 12 Mar 2019
Oxford University Press (2010). Oxford concise medical dictionary (8 ed.).
Singh, P. (2013). Andropause: current concepts. Indian J Endocrinol Metab, Dec; 17(Suppl 3): S621-S629..
NHS Choices (2017). Erectile dysfunction (impotence). NHS. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/erection-problems-erectile-dysfunction/ [accessed 30th April 2018].
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