Medically reviewed by Jill Johnson, DNP, APRN, FNP-BC
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 8/9/2021
Ah yes, the gas station: the easiest place to buy a case of beer, a handful of scratcher tickets, and medication for erectile dysfunction.
Did something about that last sentence seem off? You have a good eye. It’s odd that medications for ED are sold outside of pharmacies, and odder still that they make promising claims about what they can do for your sex life.
Over the counter sex pills and supplements are many things, but prescription medication is not one of them.
If you’re suffering from ED, there are a lot of places you can turn for help, but the Sunoco down the street shouldn’t be one of them. To understand why, you just have to look at the ingredients lists.
To explain what’s in gas station sex pills, it’s probably best to first explain what’s in the “real” stuff.
Viagra® and other FDA-approved erectile dysfunction drugs belong to a class called phosphodiesterase 5 inhibitors, or PDE5 inhibitors. These are medically-prescribed drugs which when taken properly work by increasing blood flow in order to maintain erections.
Viagra, for instance, has been tested through decades of medical research, making it a safe and proven treatment.
The over the counter sex pills you buy are, well, none of these things.
Gas station sex pills are largely unregulated, and while they sometimes promise the same effects as prescription ED medications through “natural” compounds, the science is questionable. “Natural” is well and good, but it does not mean “safe.”
Some of the gas station sexual enhancement products on the market have built themselves decent brand recognition as over the counter sex pills — these kind of fake Viagra pills that don’t need to be prescribed by a healthcare professional.
Unfortunately, there are no significant human studies showing whether or not these effects can translate to people.
There’s also Yohimbine, which is one of the few over the counter sex pills with at least elementary research to back it.
It may increase sex drive, but it also isn’t clear how yohimbine compares in effectiveness with regular ED medications.
And like the others, it can have a lot of side effects (including some serious ones).
This might be a good time to mention Nizagara, which is a Viagra pill containing — in addition to Viagra’s active ingredient sildenafil — enhancement supplement ingredients like L-arginine, redberry, vitamin B6, vitamin B12 and folic acid, which have occasionally been linked to ED health benefits.
Unfortunately, there’s not much substantiation to any of these claims and it has not been tested in humans or approved by the FDA for use as an ED treatment.
What gas station sex pills lack in scientific backing for their benefits, they more than make up for in risks and side effects.
Most of them can cause a variety of symptoms like headaches and blood pressure fluctuations, which are similar to those experienced with prescription ED medications. But it gets worse, quickly. Yohimbine can cause insomnia, hypertension and sweating. Ginseng can cause constipation, rash and can be dangerous for diabetics.
Ginkgo biloba can cause seizures in some rare cases, and one study of L-arginine was actually stopped early because six people (six!) died, compared with zero in the placebo group.
In 2015 the FDA advised consumers that many products marketed as “herb Viagra” aren’t safe. The reason? These pills actually contained sildenafil, the active ingredient in the real version of Viagra, which is both illegal and not disclosed in the ingredients list.
Are these things safe? No. Like, not even remotely. Not only is there no medical rigor attached to their claims, but compared with established prescription drugs, they’re decades behind in terms of testing.
Sorry to burst the bubble here, but you’re not going to find safe and effective ED treatment on the same wall where the bags of beef jerky and Bic lighters are kept.
And we’re not the only ones saying that.
In 2013, the Pharmacognosy Review concluded, “Due to unavailability of the safety data, unclear mechanisms, and lack of knowledge to support the extensive use of these substances, uses of these products may be risky to the human being.”
Two words: healthcare professional.
What you should take should be recommended by a trained healthcare professional, not that cool guy Steve who’s always apologizing that the slushy machine is broken. Thanks a lot, Steve.
A healthcare professional is going to direct you to safe and effective medications. There are several types, but they’re going to have certain things in common.
Let’s look at Cialis (tadalafil) and Viagra (sildenafil). The active ingredients tadalafil and sildenafil are both phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5) inhibitors. These drugs keep you hard by keeping the blood vessels in your penis dilated and your corpora cavernosa engorged.
They’ve been used to treat hypertension in the past (and still are), so if you’re currently receiving other blood pressure treatments, you’ll want to let your healthcare provider know before taking these.
Sildenafil and tadalafil work similarly, but while sildenafil is a sort of single-use tablet to prep for a few hours of intimacy, tadalafil can also be prescribed as a daily medication, so you don’t have to plan ahead.
ED is a fairly common health condition. It affects an estimated 30 million to 50 million men nationally. That’s one in four guys. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
We get that ED is a struggle, but if you’re buying a sex pill from a gas station to avoid going to the doctor, just go to the doctor.
A healthcare professional will be much less judgmental than the people in line behind you, and they’ll be able to address your particular needs and help you find a safe and effective treatment.
In addition to lifestyle changes and therapy, you might also receive recommendations for medications we mentioned like tadalafil or sildenafil (Cialis or Viagra). You may end up with a different medication altogether, which is fine. Just make sure that it’s safe and effective, and not next to a rotating hotdog warmer. Your own weiner will thank you.