Erectile dysfunction: Why it happens and how to cure this embarrassing problem

Picture of man and women sitting in bed, representing problems with erectile dysfunction. (Getty Images)
Erectile dysfunction is incredibly common yet rarely discussed, but there are solutions available. (Getty Images)

Erectile dysfunction (ED) is very common affecting nearly half of men in the UK. Nevertheless it can feel like an embarrassing problem to solve.

That's why it comes as good news that a new treatment for ED is now available to buy over the counter and online at Boots for the first time in 25 years.

The major breakthrough topical gel has been shown in clinical trials to help men achieve an erection, without much side effects.

While current oral medicines like Viagra can take an hour to take effect, Eroxon, suitable for adult men aged 18 and over, is proven to work within just 10 minutes.

Closeup of couple with relationship problems having emotional conversation while lying in bedroom at home
The majority of men find it hard to speak about erectile dysfunction with their partner or friends. (Getty Images)

Looking at the bigger picture, ED could be a potential warning sign for other health issues, including heart disease.

Sexual problems more generally are thought to be a contributing factor for a fifth of all divorces, while poor productivity at work is twice as high in men with them than those without.

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Talking erectile dysfunction

Why do some men find it so hard to talk about?

“Embarrassment is a key feature of ED. New real-world research from Eroxon shows a huge psychological toll associated with this condition," says Dr Catherine Hood, a specialist in sexual medicine and an advisor to the brand.

"Almost six in ten (58%) feel disappointment, half (50%) feel a sense of failure and 47% feel embarrassment or shame. So, it’s not surprising that men find ED very hard to talk about. Men’s erectile failure makes them feel a total failure."

But of course they aren't, and unfortunately, this can lead to not enough men seeking help.

A gay couple sat on their couch, chatting while watching tv together at home.
When in a relationship, having open conversations and working around the problem as a team is the best approach. (Getty Images)

How to talk about it in a relationship

Fortunately, two thirds of those surveyed do at least talk to their partner, with half initiating the conversation. Though not everyone knows how to navigate this in the best way.

"As a woman be sure to talk to your partner in a loving, supportive way. Find the right time to talk and discuss the issue openly emphasising that ED is not your partner’s fault. Reassure your partner he is not alone. Ask your partner how you can help. Learn about the condition and ways to manage it," advises Hood.

And, perhaps surprisingly, she adds, "When two men are in a relationship it can be even more difficult to talk about ED. It’s easy to compare yourself with your partner leading to worries for both of you, with ED being a challenge to discuss. This can create anxiety.

"It therefore takes courage and very skilled communication to speak to your partner. Tell him that you are here because you want to be with him and if you have the same worries about ED, be honest and say so.

"Neither of you should be striving for perfection. Have an open conversation about what you both feel and make sure not to blame your partner. You are a team and not two individuals."

Talking openly about treatments and what might work best can also be beneficial.

an old man sitting at the table in outdoor pub Drinking beer and smoking
Lifestyle factors like drinking and smoking can contribute to erectile dysfunction. (Getty Images)

Erectile dysfunction and physical health

While ED typically occurs in men over the age of 40, it can happen at any age and you’ll be particularly prone to it if you’re overweight or obese and if you’re suffering from fatigue too. Drinking alcohol excessively or smoking cigarettes can also have a negative impact.

But there are also a range of health conditions that can leave men more susceptible to ED, all of which can make achieving and sustaining an erection more difficult.

Diabetes, for example, can affect the blood supply and the nerve endings in the penis while hypertension can also damage the arteries that feed the penis.

Atherosclerosis, meanwhile, will cause your arteries to narrow and harden, restricting the amount of blood that can reach your penis and making erections more difficult.

Conditions such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease as well as hormonal issues like hyperthyroidism can also present problems.

“The fact is that the process of getting an erection is complicated because it relies on the vascular, endocrine and central nervous systems and many health conditions can impede this process,” says Gillian Stone, superintendent pharmacist.

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Erectile dysfunction and mental health

But it’s not just physical concerns that can provoke the problem. Often, it’s psychological issues that are at the root of the problem with stress, anxiety and depression, as well as the medication typically prescribed to tackle them, often leading to a man’s inability to get an erection.

Troubles in your relationship and ‘performance anxiety’ can also hinder things in the bedroom.

But help is at hand. Many of the problems associated with ED can be helped simply by changing some of the less healthy lifestyle habits you may have picked up.

Tweaking your diet and leading a healthier lifestyle in general could help with erectile dysfunction. (Getty Images)
Tweaking your diet and leading a healthier lifestyle in general could help with erectile dysfunction. (Getty Images)

How to help erectile dysfunction

Try eating a healthier diet and maintaining a healthy weight for you. Cut down on the booze and up the amount of exercise you do. And, if possible, try and eliminate any unnecessary stress in your life too.

If that doesn’t work, then you may need some extra assistance. “The most common type of medication for erectile dysfunction are phosphodiesterase type 5 inhibitors (PDE5) such as sildenafil [sold as Viagra],” says Stone. While it used to be available by prescription only, Viagra is now available over the counter at pharmacies – just be sure to talk through any concerns with the pharmacist beforehand.

It’s not the only route you can explore. Other common treatments include Prostaglandin injections or pellets inserted in the urethra, while some men might also benefit from using vacuum pumps, although all these are markedly less popular than taking a readily available product in tablet form like Viagra.

“These products tend to less accepted by men as they see them as being inhibitors to spontaneous sex,” says Stone. Remember, though, that you may have to try more than one treatment to find the one that works for you as each person’s response will be different.

And now, Eroxon is of course available without prescription too, which requires you only to apply the gel to the head of the penis, stimulating the nerve endings.

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Watch: Viagra users could damage their eyesight

What is key is that you don’t suffer in silence. Taking that all-important first step in sharing, discussing and addressing the problem, be that with a partner or a health professional, might be difficult and uncomfortable but it’s imperative if you want your sex life to get back on track.

And the good news? Well, evidence shows that couples who have actually tackled the issue together report being closer as a result of it.

See a GP if ED keeps happening, who can help to rule out other more serious problems, get to the root cause, and recommend treatment.