By Tash Reddy

Nearly all men will experience erectile dysfunction at some point in their lives.

According to information obtained from the Southern African Health Association, it's a problem that very few men will talk about, but the number of cases are increasing.

"People have a huge problem talking about the issue, but it is a very pertinent topic," says Dr Prithy Ramlachan, a sexual health practitioner in Durban.

"Only 15 percent of the patients are willing to open up. Men usually suffer with it for two to three years before they see a doctor, and their relationships and marriages suffer, which could lead to other problems."

Medical research has revealed that erectile dysfunction could in fact be a symptom of a far more serious and sometimes even life-threatening problem.

Ramlachan said: "Erectile loss could be the first sign of other serious underlying illnesses like diabetes, hypertension or high blood pressure, heart disease, or even cancer. It affects about 60 percent of diabetic men and 52 percent of them are between the ages of 40 and 70."

Erectile dysfunction (ED) can be described as a total inability to get an erection, an inconsistent ability to keep an erection firm enough for sexual intercourse, or a tendency to maintain only brief erections.

There are various causes of the illness.

Psychological erectile dysfunction can be the result of stress, fear, worry, anger or frustration, while physical ED may result from damage to the nerves or blood vessels that control the penis.

According to Ramlachan, there is a myth that ED causes infertility, but this is not true.

"People need to realise that ED is not infertility. They are two different issues. A man who has ED can be perfectly fertile and it does not mean a man can not conceive children," Ramlachan said.

Research revealed that ED can be prevented through changes in the lifestyle - reducing stress, following a diet, avoiding excessive use of alcohol and smoking - all contribute to decreasing the risk of a man suffering with erectile dysfunction.

"There are many treatment alternatives, depending on the cause. If psychological, the patient will be referred to a psychologist.

"Physical ED can be treated through oral medications, penile implants and vascular surgery.

"A patient can also opt for a vacuum device that involves placing a hollow tube over the penis and inducing an erection, or by self-injection surgery which involves inserting an erection-causing drug into the penis with a very fine needle and syringe."

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