Sperling Prostate Center

Can Viagra (and Similar Drugs) Make You Blind?

When boys become curious about sex, their eager ears pick up tons of misinformation from their buddies and schoolmates. However, it wasn’t that long ago when adults themselves told outright lies about sex. They probably did so in an effort to curb young rascals’ budding sexual impulses. For instance, they promulgated the myth that playing with yourself will make you go blind—but did this really rein in masturbation? After all, boys quickly sort fact from fiction, and no one’s eyesight suffered.

However, there may be a grain of truth to the old myth after all. A new study has found a connection between drugs used to promote male sexual performance and vision/eye problems.

ED, PDE-5 inhibitors, and eye problems

It’s estimated that millions of men experience erectile dysfunction (ED). The percentages increase with age:

  • Ages 40-49 – 9.1% of men
  • Ages 50-59 – 15.2% of men
  • Ages 60-69 – 29.4% of men
  • Older than 70 – 54.9% of men[i]

In 1998, a game changer occurred. The FDA approved an effective oral ED treatment that appeared to be very safe. Men with ED could pop a pill to achieve/maintain an erection.

The pills in question are a class of drugs called PDE-5 inhibitors (phosphodiesterase type 5 inhibitors) that act to increase blood flow to the penis. There are several different types, but the most common are sildenafil (Viagra), tadalafil (Cialis), and vardenafil (Levitra), but just swallowing the pill itself does not cause an erection. There has to be some type of sexual activity, because arousal starts in the brain (desire, imagination, fantasy); then the penis needs physical stimulation to continue engorging with enough blood to sustain an erection. (After orgasm, biochemical changes allow the blood to flow out, and the penis becomes soft.)

So, what’s the connection with PDE-5 inhibitors and eyesight? This class of medication can cross the blood-brain and blood-retinal barriers, potentially affecting the optical nerve and the eye’s light receptors needed for vision. A 2021 literature review identified possible eye side effects that include oversensitivity to light, hazy or blurred vision, and blue tinted perception; these effects are mostly reversible by discontinuing drug use. Less often, damage to the eye itself such as detachment of the retina, optic nerve dysfunction, and other conditions that may require treatment can occur.[ii]
There are even rare reports of vision loss (blindness).

Most recently, JAMA Network News reported a 2022 analysis of 213,033 U.S. men who received at least one PDE-5 prescription every three months, implying regular use.[iii]
The average age was about 65, and the analysis included a control group of age-matched nonPDE-5 users (4685 men). The authors found that regular PDE-5 use was associated with increased risks of serous retinal detachment, reduced retinal blood flow, and sudden loss of vision (blindness) due to inadequate blood flow to the optic nerve. These risks were particularly enhanced among men who already have high blood pressure, diabetes, coronary artery disease and sleep apnea.

While more research is needed into the mechanisms by which adverse vision effects occur, the authors urge that men who regularly use PDE-5 medications for ED, and who experience any visual abnormalities, promptly contact their doctors.

Thus, the answer to the title question, “Can Viagra (and similar drugs) make you go blind?” is, possibly but not likely. We’re not suggesting that the childhood caution against playing with yourself is accurate, but it does seem that if you regularly take “the little blue pill” to promote sexual activity, it may pose a hazard to your eyes. Even if adverse visual effects are quite rare, eyesight is a precious gift. Therefore, we felt it was important to pass along the wise recommendation suggested by this new study.

NOTE: This content is solely for purposes of information and does not substitute for diagnostic or medical advice. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing pelvic pain, or have any other health concerns or questions of a personal medical nature.

[i] Selvin E, Burnett AL, Platz EA. Prevalence and risk factors for erectile dysfunction in the US. Am J Med 2007;120:151–157
[ii] Barroso F, Ribeiro JC, Miranda EP. Phosphodiesterase Type 5 Inhibitors and Visual Side Effects: A Narrative Review. J Ophthalmic Vis Res. 2021;16(2):248-259. Published 2021 Apr 29.
doi:10.18502/jovr.v16i2.9088
[iii] Slomski A. Regular Use of Erectile Dysfunction Drugs Associated With Eye Problems. JAMA 2022; 327(21):2066.

 

About Dr. Dan Sperling

Dan Sperling, MD, DABR, is a board certified radiologist who is globally recognized as a leader in multiparametric MRI for the detection and diagnosis of a range of disease conditions. As Medical Director of the Sperling Prostate Center, Sperling Medical Group and Sperling Neurosurgery Associates, he and his team are on the leading edge of significant change in medical practice. He is the co-author of the new patient book Redefining Prostate Cancer, and is a contributing author on over 25 published studies. For more information, contact the Sperling Prostate Center.

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