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Recreational Viagra: Erection Booster or Killer?

The hard facts: Taking ED meds for fun could hurt your erections in the long term.
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Fast Facts

  • Taking Viagra or another drug that treats erectile dysfunction recreationally can raise your risk of experiencing side effects.
  • The negative effects can be more pronounced if you take the medication with other recreational drugs or alcohol.

If you’re experiencing erectile dysfunction (ED), sildenafil (sold under the brand name Viagra) can help you get your bedroom mojo back. But in recent years, men who don’t have ED have started taking Viagra without a prescription to get stronger erections, last longer in bed, and have less downtime between orgasms. Is Viagra bad for you? If you take it as prescribed, no. But swallowing it recreationally can serve up serious side effects, especially if you pop the little blue pill with alcohol or other recreational drugs.

Sildenafil is the OG erection helper. I’s ability to treat erectile dysfunction (ED) was discovered in the 90s by researchers who were examining the med’s potential to treat heart disease by dilating blood vessels in the heart. Turns out the drug was good at dilating blood vessels—just not in the heart.

After the FDA approved Viagra for treating ED in 1998, the little blue pill gained notoriety for helping men, many of them older, get and keep erections. And young, healthy men started to take note.

The Rise of Recreational Viagra Use

Evidence suggests that recreational use of PDE5 inhibitors—the class of erectile dysfunction medications that includes Viagra—has grown over the past decade. One 2011 study (1) of just over 1,900 healthy male undergraduates found that four percent of them had used ED medications like Viagra recreationally within the past year, compared to just over 1 percent who had been prescribed the drug by a doctor.

Viagra doesn’t get you high like other party drugs, so what’s the appeal? The bulk of the students surveyed said they took the pills out of sheer curiosity; others reported using them to counteract the effects of other drugs that prevented them from getting and keeping an erection, or to impress their sexual partner.

A more recent 2021 study published in Frontiers in Medicine (2) backs up the use of ED meds among young men: When researchers looked at Viagra use among 65 men over the age of 18, they found that a full 66 percent of the men used Viagra recreationally—nearly twice the number who used it for medical purposes.

Recreational Viagra Use Among Athletes

But it’s not just curiosity and lasting erections men are looking for. Viagra has also gained a reputation among athletes for increasing speed and endurance. “Most people would be surprised and probably even get a good laugh if you told them that Viagra and Cialis were performance-enhancing drugs,” says Matt Cowling, D.O., a physical medicine & rehabilitation specialist in Madison, WI. “The truth is these medications are commonly used amongst various types of athletes.”

In endurance athletes, says Cowling, the medications can cause an uptake in glucose by skeletal muscles, which can increase performance and boost blood flow. Bodybuilders also use the meds. “They help enhance what bodybuilders call a ‘pump,’” says Cowling. “They allow for increased glucose uptake in the muscle which gives the muscles a large appearance and allows them to engorge with blood flow. It also greatly increases the vascularity of the muscles giving them a very shredded appearance.”

Research has found that ED meds can give a performance boost to athletes training at high altitudes. At high altitudes, lower atmospheric pressure makes it harder for your body to transfer oxygen into the blood. Because Viagra helps blood vessels dilate, taking it can boost the amount of blood flowing to your muscles.

A 2004 study (3) in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed improved exercise capacity in a group of climbers measured at the base camp of Mt. Everest (elevation 17,600 feet above sea level). In a 2006 study, (4) four out of 10 high-altitude cyclists had better performance after taking Viagra by up to 45 percent. But some athletes found no boost from the blue pill. The researchers suspect that the drug only helped cyclists whose blood vessels were more constricted at high altitudes. It’s worth noting though that these studies were very small, and done at extremely high altitudes at which oxygen levels were seriously diminished.

The everyday runner looking for more power for a run or workout isn’t likely to see any benefit. And it’s never a good idea to take ED meds that haven’t been prescribed by a doctor to treat ED, especially because if you order meds off the internet, you never know what you’re going to get. Cowling says he wouldn’t prescribe Viagra to an athlete just to get a performance boost. “But athletes are certainly obtaining them, either on the internet or by using the diagnosis of erectile dysfunction to get them.”

In one study, 66 % of men over 18 had used Viagra recreationally.

What is Viagra?

Sildenafil, along with drugs like tadalafil (sold under the brand name Cialis), vardenafil (Levitra), and avanafil (Stendra), belongs to a class of medications called phosphodiesterase 5 inhibitors, or PDE5 inhibitors. PDE5 inhibitors help men who have erectile dysfunction get, and maintain an erection by improving blood flow to the penis.

Here’s how: When you are sexually aroused, your brain sends chemical messages into your penis. One of these chemicals, called cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP), relaxes and widens blood vessels in your penis and relaxes muscle fibers in the corpus cavernosum, two spongy cylinders of tissue that form the bulk of your penis. As a result, blood flow to your appendage increases. This increase in blood flow is what helps you get and keep an erection.

Viagra works by blocking the action of a powerful enzyme known as cyclic guanosine monophosphate-specific phosphodiesterase type 5 or PDE5. PDE5 inhibitors like Viagra bind to and break down cGMP, allowing it to accumulate in the muscle cells, prolonging arterial dilation in the penis and thus, a prolonged erection.

Since its approval by the FDA, Viagra has been used by millions of men with erectile dysfunction. As long as you’re otherwise healthy and you take the drug as prescribed by your doctor, it’s very safe, says urologist Joshua Calvert, M.D. But, he adds, taking Viagra when it hasn’t been prescribed can have significant consequences for your health.

Related: Why You Can’t Get And Keep An Erection

The Health Risks of Recreational Viagra

Taking Viagra recreationally can negatively impact your health in several ways. If you take Viagra with other recreational drugs—some of the recreational ED med users in the 2011 study reported taking Viagra with ecstasy, marijuana, amphetamines, cocaine, and alkyl nitrates—you run the risk of interactions, such as severely low blood pressure, which can cause dizziness, fainting, or even death in rare cases.

It’s generally safe to drink moderately while taking Viagra, but if you’re drinking heavily while on the drug, you might get lightheaded and dizzy or have heart palpitations.

Even if you don’t mix Viagra with other drugs, it can be harmful.

While ED drugs may not be physically addictive, over time they can become a mental crutch for men who use them recreationally. This is ironic because performance anxiety is one of the reasons that many young men turn to the medication in the first place.

A 2012 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine (5) found that men who use ED medications recreationally have less confidence in erections and reduced overall sexual satisfaction compared to men who don’t take the meds off-label. And the more often the men took the drugs, the more likely they were to report sexual dysfunction.

Recreational Viagra use may also make you more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors. In the 2011 study of undergraduates, recreational Viagra use was associated with having an increased number of sexual partners (which can raise the risk for STIs) and one-night stands.

Related: How to Legally Buy ED Medication Online

Side Effects of Viagra

Like any medication, there are side effects associated with using PDE5 inhibitors, including Viagra. Whether you use Viagra as a prescription or recreationally, you may notice one or more of these side effects.

  • Headache
  • Mild increase in heartbeats
  • Flushing
  • Diarrhea
  • Blurred vision
  • Eye irritation
  • Nausea
  • Increased sensitivity and aversion to light
  • Light-headedness
 

If these side effects last or are severe, you should see your doctor, whether you’re taking Viagra recreationally or by prescription.

Is Viagra Addictive?

There’s no scientific evidence that Viagra can be addictive, meaning there are no medical withdrawal or dependency side effects, says Calvert. “But men can develop a psychological addiction where they feel that they won’t respond sexually without it,” he says.

That’s exactly what happened to men in a 2016 study. Although the men turned to ED meds to boost their sexual confidence, some of them reported “feelings of loss of manhood.” (6)

What Happens If You Take Viagra When you don’t Need it?

“Many guys think that taking Viagra will give them a better erection than they would otherwise obtain on their own,” says Calvert. “But one of the scariest risks is priapism, or a very painful erection lasting longer than 4 hours, independent of ejaculation.”

That might sound fun—until you hear the treatment. “Taking it down requires multiple needles being stuck in your penis and often results in permanent erectile dysfunction that even meds can’t fix,” says Calvert. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

The Bottom Line

Viagra is a medical treatment, not a recreational drug. Using ED meds for fun isn’t a good idea and can raise your risk of experiencing side effects, especially if you take the drug with other recreational drugs or alcohol.

If you’re experiencing problems getting an erection or staying hard enough for sex, speak to a doctor. “If you have issues with erections, get in and talk to your healthcare provider because it could be a marker for something more serious,” says Calvert.

References:
1. Harte, Christopher B, and Cindy M Meston. “Recreational use of erectile dysfunction medications in undergraduate men in the United States: characteristics and associated risk factors.” Archives of sexual behavior vol. 40,3 (2011): 597-606. doi:10.1007/s10508-010-9619-y
2. Atsbeha, Berhanemeskel Weldegerima et al. “The Weekend Drug; Recreational Use of Sildenafil Citrate and Concomitant Factors: A Cross-Sectional Study.” Frontiers in medicine vol. 8 665247. 20 Aug. 2021, doi:10.3389/fmed.2021.665247
3. Ghofrani HA, Reichenberger F, Kohstall MG, Mrosek EH, Seeger T, Olschewski H, Seeger W, Grimminger F. Sildenafil increased exercise capacity during hypoxia at low altitudes and at Mount Everest base camp: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover trial. Ann Intern Med. 2004 Aug 3;141(3):169-77. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-141-3-200408030-00005. PMID: 15289213.
4. Hsu AR, Barnholt KE, Grundmann NK, Lin JH, McCallum SW, Friedlander AL. Sildenafil improves cardiac output and exercise performance during acute hypoxia, but not normoxia. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2006 Jun;100(6):2031-40. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00806.2005. Epub 2006 Feb 2. PMID: 16455814.
5. Santtila P, Sandnabba NK, Jern P, Varjonen M, Witting K, von der Pahlen B. Recreational use of erectile dysfunction medication may decrease confidence in ability to gain and hold erections in young males. Int J Impot Res. 2007 Nov-Dec;19(6):591-6. doi: 10.1038/sj.ijir.3901584. Epub 2007 Jul 26. PMID: 17657209.
6. Both R. A matter of sexual confidence: young men’s non-prescription use of Viagra in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Cult Health Sex. 2016;18(5):495-508. doi: 10.1080/13691058.2015.1101489. Epub 2015 Nov 11. PMID: 26555512.

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