Erectile Dysfunction Overview
An estimated 15 to 30 million men are affected by erectile dysfunction and frequent ED can be a sign of a bigger medical problem that needs att...

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What Is Erectile Dysfunction?

Erectile dysfunction (ED) is the inability to get or keep an erection firm enough to have sexual intercourse. It is also sometimes also referred to as impotence.

Occasional ED is not uncommon. Many men experience it during times of stress. However, frequent ED can be a sign of health problems that need treatment. It can also be a sign of emotional or relationship difficulties that may need to be addressed by a professional.

Not all male sexual problems are caused by ED. Other types of male sexual dysfunction include:

  • premature ejaculation
  • delayed or absent ejaculation
  • lack of interest in sex

How Common Is Erectile Dysfunction?

Up to 30 million American men are affected by ED, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). The prevalence of ED increases with age. ED affects only four percent of men in their 50s, but nearly 17 percent of men in their 60s. Furthermore, almost half of all men over the age of 75 will suffer from ED.

Although the risk of ED increases with age, ED is not an inevitable consequence of getting older. It may be more difficult to get an erection as you age, but that does not necessarily you mean you will develop ED. In general, the healthier a man is, the better his sexual function.

How Does a Man Get an Erection?

An erection is the result of increased blood flow into the penis. Blood flow is usually stimulated by either sexual thoughts or direct contact with the penis.

When a man becomes sexually excited, muscles in the penis relax. This relaxation allows for increased blood flow through the penile arteries. This blood fills two chambers inside the penis called the corpora cavernosa. As the chambers fill with blood, the penis grows rigid. Erection ends when the muscles contract and the accumulated blood can flow out through the penile veins.  

ED can occur because of problems at any stage of the erection process. For example, the penile arteries may be too damaged to open properly and allow blood in.

The potential causes of ED are numerous. They include:

  • cardiovascular disease
  • diabetes
  • damage from cancer or surgery
  • injuries
  • stress
  • anxiety
  • relationship problems
  • drug use
  • alcohol use
  • smoking

These factors can work singly or in combination.

What Are the Symptoms of Erectile Dysfunction?

ED is defined by an inability to get or sustain an erection firm enough for sexual intercourse. It has no other symptoms.

What Is the Outlook for Erectile Dysfunction?

ED is a treatable condition. There are a number of ED treatments available. The type of treatment generally depends on the underlying cause of ED. 

Treatments for ED range from counseling and lifestyle changes to drugs and surgery. If you suffer from ED, it is important to talk to your doctor. A doctor can help identify the cause of your ED and figure out the most appropriate treatment.

Because it can be embarrassing to discuss ED, many men look for treatment options online. However, not all treatments are safe for all men. You should not self-prescribe for ED. In addition, many of the treatments available on the Internet are scams. They may not help your ED, and could damage your health. 

Written by: the Healthline Editorial Team
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by: Kenneth R. Hirsch, MD
Published: Aug 8, 2014
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
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