What is erectile dysfunction?

Dr Luke Powles
Associate Clinical Director, Health Clinics Bupa Global and UK
21 February 2023
Next review due February 2026

Erectile dysfunction or ED is when you have problems getting an erection or you can’t keep an erection for long enough to have sex. This is not unusual, but it can affect your sex life. Here I talk about why this may happen.

man looking out of a window

What causes erectile dysfunction (ED)?

There are many reasons why you might have trouble getting an erection during sex. When you are unable to get an erection, this is called erectile dysfunction (ED). It may also be called impotence. While erectile dysfunction becomes more common with age, it can happen at any age. Erection problems may be linked to low testosterone levels or conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes which affect blood flow to the penis. ED could also be a side effect following surgery or operation on your pelvic area. Other things putting you at risk of ED are:

  • being obese
  • drinking heavily
  • smoking
  • drug misuse

ED could also be linked to your mental health. Stress, depression, and anxiety can make it harder for you to get an erection. ED can also happen if you aren’t able to feel aroused or have problems with intimacy. And having poor sleep may also cause ED.

While exercise is good for encouraging blood flow to the penis, cycling more than three hours a week has also been linked to ED. This may be because sitting on a saddle can cause nerve damage. But, there needs to be more research to confirm this.

How does erectile dysfunction (ED) go away?

If you are worried about erectile dysfunction (ED), don’t feel embarrassed to seek help. A doctor can help you and your partner find out what’s going on. They’ll ask about your medical history to see if your ED is linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or low hormone levels. They may need to do tests to confirm this. They will also ask about any relationship or emotional problems.

They may give you advice on your lifestyle to help your ED or conditions linked to ED such as:

If you cycle more than three hours a week, you might be advised to stop for a while to see if this helps with getting erections. However, if you’d rather not stop cycling, it might help to get a properly fitted seat or change the position you sit on the seat.

If your ED is not related to a physical issue it may be because of psychological reasons, for example stress, anxiety or depression. If so, your doctor will advise that you visit a mental health service such as psychosexual therapy or counselling.

Can erectile dysfunction (ED) be cured with medication?

To treat erectile dysfunction (ED), your doctor can prescribe medicine to help you get an erection. One medicine you might have heard of is Viagra (Sildenafil)- this is one of a type of medicine called a PDE-5 inhibitor. You can get Viagra without a prescription. However, for other PDE-5 inhibitors, you’ll need a prescription. You should follow your doctor’s advice on which PDE-5 inhibitor is best for your ED. These are pills which you take before you have sex. Depending on which one you’re taking, it can take at least 15 to 30 minutes to take effect.

Your ED is most likely to get better by both lifestyle changes such as reducing smoking and drinking as well as drug treatment. Remember that ED is not an unusual problem, and by talking to a doctor you can help both you and your partner.

Are you interested in learning more about your health? Discover more about our range of health assessments.

Dr Luke Powles
Dr Luke Powles
Associate Clinical Director, Health Clinics Bupa Global and UK



Rasheda Begum, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

    • Erectile Dysfunction (ED). Patient., last edited March 2022
    • Erectile dysfunction. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., last revised July 2020
    • Erectile dysfunction. BMJ Best Practice., last reviewed December 2022
    • Erectile dysfunction. Oxford Handbook of General Practice (5 ed online). Oxford Academic., published June 2020
    • Personal communication Dr Luke Powles. Clinical Director Clinical Director, Health Clinics Bupa Global and UK, February 2023
    • Sildenafil. British National Formulary., last accessed January 2023
    • Tadalafil. British National Formulary., last accessed January 2023
    • Vardenafil. British National Formulary., last accessed January 2023
    • Avanafil. British National Formulary., last accessed January 2023

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