Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 7/29/2022
Losing an erection during intercourse can be a stressful, worrying experience. However, it’s also a fairly normal one. Just about every man will experience it at some point in life, and it’s nothing that you should feel ashamed or embarrassed about.
A variety of reasons may cause you to lose your erection during sex, from sexual performance anxiety to alcohol consumption. Sometimes, an underlying health issue may make it harder for you to maintain an erection, even when you feel sexual desire.
Below, we’ve explained how and why erectile dysfunction can occur, as well as what you might notice if you’re prone to this common sexual issue.
We’ve also listed the reasons you may lose your erection during sex, as well as your options for treating weak or inconsistent erections, improving your sexual performance and enjoying more satisfying sex with your partner.
Technically, losing your erection during sex is a form of erectile dysfunction -- a common male sexual disorder that can affect men of all ages and backgrounds.
If hearing the words “erectile dysfunction” makes you feel worried, don’t panic. ED is extremely common. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, around 30 million men in the US have some degree of erectile dysfunction.
Failed erections happen to all of us, and reacting the right way can make dealing with it a much easier process.
ED can vary in severity. Men with severe erectile dysfunction might not be able to ever get any erections, while men with more mild ED may be able to get an erection that just doesn’t last for long enough to have satisfying, fulfilling sex.
Put simply, losing an erection during sex is an extremely common symptom of mild or moderate ED -- a topic we’ve discussed more in our full guide to erectile dysfunction.
So, what causes erectile dysfunction to occur? A variety of factors can all play a role in causing you to either lose your erection during sex or get an erection that isn’t quite firm enough for you to penetrate your partner.
These include physical health conditions (particularly those that affect blood flow or the function of your nerves), medications, factors related to your lifestyle and even psychological issues like several common mental health disorders.
Sometimes, a combination of factors all play their own parts in affecting your erections, as well as other aspects of your sexual health and function.
We’ve dug into each group of factors in more detail below, starting with physical conditions that can cause trouble with erections.
Getting an erection might seem simple, but it’s actually a complicated process that involves your sex hormones, your nervous system and your cardiovascular system.
An erection begins with stimulation, either sensory (something you see, hear or touch) or mental (a sexual thought you might have). This triggers your nervous system and increases blood flow to your penile arteries.
As blood flows into your penis, it fills a pair of areas of tissue called the corpora cavernosa. The blood that flows into this tissue causes pressure to build inside your penis, making it firmer and increasing its size.
Several health issues can interfere with this physical process, either by affecting the function of your nerves or by reducing blood circulation in your penile veins and stopping blood from being able to flow to your penis.
For example, cardiovascular health issues like heart disease, atherosclerosis (clogged arteries) and hypertension (high blood pressure) may affect your blood vessels and stop your penis from getting adequate blood flow for a consistent erection.
Other chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and chronic kidney disease, can affect your cardiovascular system and harm the nerves around your penis, potentially affecting blood flow and nerve function.
Nervous system disorders, such as multiple sclerosis (MS) can also affect your ability to get an erection and maintain it while you’re having sex.
Sometimes, physical issues that don’t directly affect your blood flow or nerve function can also have an impact on your ability to maintain an erection by affecting your sex drive and everyday level of interest in sexual activity.
For example, maintaining adequate testosterone levels is important for keeping your sex drive health and consistent. Although low testosterone doesn’t cause ED directly, it can reduce your sexual desire and may play a role in some forms of sexual dysfunction.
This could affect your level of sexual enjoyment and desire for sex in general, making it more difficult to keep an erection.
As well as cardiovascular disease, nerve damage, chronic diseases and low hormone levels, injuries that affect the function of your penis may make it more difficult for you to get hard and stay hard while you’re in bed with your partner.
For example, Peyronie’s disease -- a condition caused by fibrous scar tissue in the penis that can cause painful, curved erections -- can affect your erections. Similarly, nerve damage from surgery or injuries may increase your risk of losing your erection during sex.
Many medications can affect your sex life, including by dulling sexual excitement or reducing your general level of sexual function. Sometimes, these changes in your sexual function from medication can make it more challenging to maintain an erection during sexual intercourse.
Medications that may cause you to lose your erection include:
Antidepressant drugs, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
Medications that affect androgen levels of cause hormone imbalances
Anti-anxiety medications or prescription drugs used to promote sleep
Appetite suppressants and/or weight loss medications
Antihistamines used to treat colds and allergies
Medications for Parkinson’s disease
Blood pressure medications
Medications for stomach ulcers
If you’re prescribed medication to treat any condition and notice that you’re losing your erection during sex, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider. Make sure to let them know if you initially started to notice erection problems after you began treatment with medication.
Your healthcare provider may suggest adjusting your dosage or using a different medication that has a lower risk of causing erection issues.
In addition to over-the-counter and prescription medications, many recreational substances and illicit substances can cause erection difficulties and affect your general sexual function.
Recreational drugs and illicit substances that can affect erectile function include:
If you use illegal drugs and think you may have a substance use disorder, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider as soon as you can.
Certain habits and lifestyle factors can affect your sexual health and ability. In certain cases, an unhealthy habit may contribute to heart conditions or other medical issues that make it harder to keep your erection when you have sex.
The following habits and lifestyle factors may cause you to lose your erection during sex:
Smoking or using other nicotine products. Smoking is a major risk factor for erectile dysfunction, both because of damage it can cause to your heart system and the effects of nicotine.
Drinking alcohol, especially to excess. Alcohol and erectile dysfunction can go hand in hand -- after all, we’ve all heard of whiskey dick. You may find it harder to maintain an erection if you’ve had a few drinks before going to bed.
Being overweight or obese. While it’s okay to have a few extra pounds, being highly overweight or obese is associated with a significantly higher risk of developing erectile dysfunction.
Using steroids. Although testosterone is linked to a higher sex drive in the short term, research suggests that use of testosterone and other steroids may increase your risk of developing ED later in life.
Finally, some psychological factors and mental health concerns may affect your ability to remain hard while you’re having sex.
For example, mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression are both associated with a higher risk of developing ED. Even feelings of anxiety, fear or guilt about sex can cause you to lose your erection when they become severe or concerning.
Sometimes, even stress -- whether it’s about your sexual function or just general life stress from your career or relationships -- can affect your erections and ability to properly connect with your sexual partner.
In short, the root cause a lost erection during a sexual encounter can vary a lot from one person to another. There’s no single cause, and often, a variety of factors can all play a part in affecting your ability to maintain (or not maintain) a reliable erection.
Losing your erection in the middle of sexy time can be something of a frustrating experience, to put it mildly. Not only does it kill the mood, but it may also lead to an awkward conversation with your partner.
The good news is that large variety of treatment options are available to help you maintain your erection during sex more easily, ranging from lifestyle changes to medication.
Before we look at treatment options, it’s important to differentiate between occasionally dealing with a lost erection and losing your erection frequently during sexual activity.
It’s very normal to sometimes lose your erection during sex. If you’re feeling tired, or if you can’t fully concentrate on sex because something else is on your mind, you may notice that you have a weaker erection than normal, or that it doesn’t seem to last as long as it should.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have erectile dysfunction. We all have off days, and the occasional weak erection usually isn’t anything to feel concerned about.
Most of the time, losing an erection becomes erectile dysfunction when it becomes consistent or noticeable to you, or when it starts to have a significant negative effect on your sex life.
This may mean getting an erection sometimes, but not every time you’d like to have sex. It may mean getting hard briefly, but not long enough to actually penetrate your partner. And of course, it may just mean not being able to achieve an erection at all, ever.
It’s also important to recognize when a lost erection is caused by a factor that isn’t linked to your general health. For example, if you lose your erection after drinking lots of alcohol, but still find it easy to maintain your erection while sober, it’s probably fixable by reducing your drinking.
With this in mind, there are a variety of ways that you can improve your sexual performance and avoid losing your erection in the middle of sexual activity.
We’ve covered all of these options below, along with relevant information about how each option works.
It’s often possible to improve your erections and stay hard during sex without taking medication by making changes to your lifestyle.
Small, simple changes can have a huge impact on your sexual performance. For example, in a meta-analysis from 2011, researchers found that aerobic exercise correlates with a measurable improvement in the symptoms of erectile dysfunction.
For the most part, promoting healthy erections is all about living a healthy, balanced and active lifestyle.
In our guide to naturally protecting your erection, we shared several approaches to try for better erections naturally. They basically boil down to the following:
Keep your body weight in the healthy range
Pay attention to your blood pressure, and treat it if it’s elevated
Eat a diet that’s built around fruit, vegetables and nutritious foods
Keep track of mental health concerns and don’t be afraid to seek treatment
Make aerobic exercise part of your daily routine (even if it’s just a little bit)
If your sex drive feels weak, get your testosterone levels checked
Improve your sleep habits and aim for seven hours or more per night
Avoid smoking cigarettes or consuming nicotine in other ways
Reduce your alcohol intake to no more than two servings per day
Limit your consumption of porn, as it may affect your erections
While these techniques aren’t guaranteed to improve your erections, they can have a noticeable impact, especially if you only lose your erection occasionally.
If any one step stands out as particularly relevant to your life, focusing on it can often lead to an immediate improvement.
For example, if you regularly drink alcohol, limiting your consumption can have a big impact on your sexual health and performance.
In one study from 2007, researchers found that the amount of alcohol a person consumes is the most significant predictor of developing sexual dysfunction.
Likewise, the nicotine in cigarettes may contribute to erection issues. One study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2008 found that men given nicotine showed low erectile response to erotic material -- a factor that may make it harder to feel aroused during sexual activity.
These tips can look intimidating, especially if you’re not used to exercising or eating healthy. Try to keep in mind that there’s no need to aim for perfection. Instead, mild but meaningful changes to your habits can often have a big positive impact on your sexual performance.
Put simply, focusing on healthy living can go a surprisingly long way towards avoiding problems with your erections or other aspects of your sexual performance.
If you think that a psychological problem could be contributing to weak or inconsistent erections, seeking psychotherapy could be beneficial.
A range of different methods are used to treat performance anxiety, stress and other factors that can contribute to erectile dysfunction. Depending on your needs, your therapist may suggest an approach such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to overcome negative thoughts.
We offer therapy online as part of our range of mental health services, allowing you to easily talk to a licensed provider from the privacy and comfort of your home.
If you have persistent erectile dysfunction that causes you to frequently lose your erection in the middle of sex, the most effective treatment option could be the use of ED medication.
Currently, the FDA has approved four prescription medications for erectile dysfunction. These include sildenafil (the active ingredient in Viagra®), tadalafil (Cialis®), vardenafil (Levitra®) and avanafil (sold as Stendra®).
All of these medications belong to a class of drugs referred to as PDE5 inhibitors, which make getting and maintaining an erection easier by increasing blood flow to your penis.
Contrary to popular belief and advertising campaigns, ED medications like sildenafil aren’t just used by middle-aged and older men.
In fact, data shows that about 40 percent of men experience some level of erectile dysfunction by the age of 40, with an increasing number of younger men using sildenafil and other drugs to deal with ED as it develops.
Each erectile dysfunction medication is slightly different, with certain drugs lasting for longer or producing fewer side effects than others.
For example, sildenafil usually provides relief from erectile dysfunction for four hours, making it an excellent option for overnight relief. Tadalafil, on the other hand, is often referred to as the “weekend” ED pill thanks to its long-lasting effects, which can often continue for 36 hours.
It’s worth noting that these medications don’t affect arousal or cause sudden erections on their own. Instead, they only make it easier to get and keep your erection when you’re already in the mood for sex.
You can learn more about the key differences between these ED drugs in our guide to the best medications for erectile dysfunction.
Currently, all ED medications in the United States require a prescription. You can get access to medication for ED by talking to your healthcare provider, or by viewing our full range of erectile dysfunction medications online, which are available following an online healthcare provider consultation.
Dealing with a lost erection can be a serious blow to your confidence, but it doesn’t need to be something you experience often.
It’s completely normal to occasionally lose your erection during sex. However, if you often lose your erection during sex, find it difficult to stay hard, or think that your sexual performance isn’t as good as it used to be, it’s often worth seeking out an option for treatment.
In many cases, you may find it easier to maintain your erections by making simple changes to your daily habits, such as exercising more, drinking less alcohol and taking steps to keep your blood pressure within the healthy range.
In other cases, ED medications such as sildenafil can make staying hard easier and give you a confidence boost in bed.
Interested in learning more about factors that can affect your sexual performance? Our detailed guides to the causes of erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation (PE) talk about two of the most common male sexual issues, as well as the steps that you can take to deal with them.