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Why you can't get hard after drinking alcohol

You don't even have to be drinking whiskey itself to get whiskey dick.

Written by
Kate Evans
Medically reviewed by
Last updated
April 29, 2024
min read
Why you can't get hard after drinking alcohol
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Affectionately — or not so affectionately, let's be honest, if you're the one it's happening to — nicknamed whiskey dick, alcohol-induced erectile dysfunction isn't uncommon for those with penises.

Actually, to be fair, using the word "uncommon" is probably an under-exaggeration — erectile dysfunction (ED) will reach a prevalence of 322 million cases worldwide, in just 2 years' time [1].

The ability to get, and keep, an erection firm enough for sexual intercourse, it's suggested that 1 of every 10 men will experience erectile dysfunction in their life [2]. And a modifiable risk factor for it is (drumroll please): excessive alcohol consumption [1].

If you're wondering whether yours is just alcohol-based, or a symptom of something bigger, a failure to get a hard-on less than 20% of the time is not unusual. So if 1 in every 5 sexual encounters gets sidetracked due to whiskey dick, you're alright.

If you're looking at 50% of the time, generally that means there's a problem that requires treatment [2].

And look, we get it — low levels of alcohol consumption can relieve anxiety, relax your muscles, and yes, it's believed to enhance sexual desire [3]. The use of it is also connected to casual sex, which as long as it's consensual and safe, is not a bad thing at all. Live your best sex life.

But, too much alcohol suppresses some functions of your central nervous system, which in turn can lead to decreased sexual desire and yes, erectile dysfunction [3]. You don't even have to be drinking whiskey itself to get whiskey dick.

Why can't I get hard after drinking alcohol?

Okay, so we briefly touched upon it, but let's dive on into everything scientific about why you can't get a hard-on after drinking — why you've got whiskey dick, or alcohol-induced erectile dysfunction (to use the proper term).

So as you probably know — or have been told by many an adult in your life prior to becoming an adult yourself — is that alcohol is a depressant, specifically a nervous system depressant [5].

And, according to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, depressant substances slow down the messages between the brain and body; alcohol, specifically, can block nerve impulses and messages between them.

Depressants also affect your concentration and coordination (your motor skills) and have a slowing effect on your ability to respond to unexpected situations (slower reaction time) [6].

How a (non-alcohol induced) erection works

Now, to how erections work. When you get a stiffy when you haven't had any alcoholic drinks, nerve messages stimulate your penis; impulses from your brain and local nerves cause the 2 blood chambers that let blood into your penis to relax — the liquid flows in, fills the open spaces, creates pressure, makes the penis expand aaaaand, boom. You've got yourself a boner [7].

As for how it's sustained, the membrane that surrounds these blood chambers helps to trap the blood within those chambers. Boom, you've kept yourself a boner [7].

What happens to an erection after heavy drinking

But when you've had a cheeky drink (or, let's be honest, a whole lot more), alcohol interferes with these messages telling your penis to fill with a healthy blood flow [8].

In some cases, there is a flow to the penis, but the alcohol in your system keeps the blood vessels open — there's a backflow, where you might get hard, and then experience a flaccid head within moments (sorry) [9].

Alcohol is also a known dehydrator, and dehydration causes decreased blood flow — including to the genitals. It also increases a hormone called angiotensin, which is associated with erectile dysfunction — because it constricts blood vessels. [10]

In addition to this, excessive alcohol use can interfere with your testicles' functioning as they should be, as well as interfering with male hormone production [11]. It can also cause gonad atrophy, lower semen quality and lower sexual desire [3].

It has been reported that excessive alcohol consumption in males causes gonad atrophy, lowering sexual desire and semen quality

And that's how whiskey dick happens — which may not help in the moment, but at least you know the science behind it.

How common is erectile dysfunction after alcohol consumption?

It's a bit hard (pun not intended) to get an exact figure on alcohol-related erectile dysfunction. As you can imagine, it has a little something to do with underreporting [12].

The chance of developing sexual dysfunction increases alongside increased alcohol intake [4].

One systematic review found that 16-73% of chronic alcohol abusers suffer from autonomic dysfunction — where there's damage to the nerves that control automatic body functions. The most commonly occurring symptom of this? Erectile dysfunction — it affects between 2-29% of this group [13].

A separate study, looking at alcohol use disorder in men over 40, discovered 54% of male patients had erectile dysfunction [4].

On the other hand, one meta-analysis found those with a lower alcohol intake — around 8 or more alcoholic drinks per week — didn't demonstrate any "harmful effects" on their sexual performance [5].

If I stop drinking, will my ED go away?

Men who are heavy alcohol drinkers, chronic drinkers, and persistent drinkers have "more chances" of developing alcohol-induced ED. Men with alcohol dependence "commonly suffer" from it [14].

The good news is, that alcohol-induced sexual dysfunction (yes, including ED) is reversible when you stop drinking, for the most part.

A study looking at men with alcohol dependence showed that abstaining from drinking shows a "spontaneous recovery" of sexual functioning in 25% of the subjects. Another found that even abstaining from drinking for a month resulted in a "significant improvement" in ED [4].

Turns out that putting down the beer — or the whiskey — can actually help prevent whiskey dick, or at least improve it.

If it doesn't go away entirely, or you still find yourself in situations where your sexual performance is not up to par, or something isn't working properly, it could be the sign of another underlying issue that isn't related to alcohol.

Don't feel bad, but do talk to your healthcare provider. Pilot offers the convenience of talking to a practitioner at home, through online consults — who can create a clinically proven erectile dysfunction treatment plan for you based on your individual circumstances.

Are there any ways to get an erection when you're drunk?

Even if you do manage to get hard after you've had one too many, another way alcohol affects your sexual performance is the fact that it may make it harder for you to ejaculate, or you may come too quickly [8].

Looking at a sample of 96 men with alcohol dependence who had attempted to have sexual intercourse in the last year, 72% had 1 or more sexual dysfunctions [15]. The most common? Premature ejaculation (37.5% of subjects, 28.12% of which complained of emission within 1 minute), low sexual desire and ED.

Erectile dysfunction was reported by a third of the men; 19.79% had difficulty achieving an erection, and 13.54% had difficulty maintaining one [15].

Common sense always helps

And look, if you don't want to go entirely sober, or you're someone who does enjoy alcohol from time to time, some of it is just common sense. If you're on a night out and want to pick up, or you and your partner are having date night and have made plans to set the mood afterwards — moderation is key.

You could stick to 1 drink, look for a drink with lower alcohol content, or pace yourself with the drinks — just drink slowly, over several hours. Drink water between alcoholic beverages.

Treating erectile dysfunction

Clinical treatment is usually recommended when it comes to ED, as it works by targeting the enzyme responsible for the contraction of blood vessels in the penis. This improves blood flow, and helps men maintain firm erections throughout sex. And, the treatments offered by Pilot health practitioners have helped improve the sex lives of 94% of patients.

But don't rely on a clinical treatment plan to do all the work for your whiskey dick — it's "considerably more effective" if you address lifestyle factors, too.

So have a look at dietary guidelines and improve that nutrition, exercise more, and get a better night's sleep. Not only will it help with your sexual performance, but it can also improve other elements of your health too — like improving cardiovascular health, reducing the risk of developing diabetes, and more.

Image credit: Getty Images

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