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July 12, 2013
By Matthew Delhomme, Contributing Columnist
At last count, we have become Viagra nation. Viagra, the little blue pill
that is the most widely prescribed medication for erectile dysfunction
(ED), rang up __ in sales in the 2012, the last year for which figures
are available. Along with the obvious benefits of alleviating ED, Viagra –
technically “sildenafil”—actually has other significant health benefits,
including relieving certain types of high blood pressure problems
(pulmonary hypertension). But, as the worldwide use of the little blue
pills has skyrocketed, scientists have started to notice other,
unexpected health dangers accompanying the use of Viagra. One of
the most troubling side effects is the parallel rise in reported night time
respiratory problems. Does Viagra really cause breathing problems?
What type of breathing problems does sildenafil cause? What kind of
precautions should you take to avoid breathing problems if you’re
What Is the Evidence Connecting Viagra to Breathing Problems?
In 2006 and again in 2010, scientists from Brazil discovered a
surprising connection between the active ingredient in Viagra ---
sildenafil --- and a sleeping condition known as “obstructive sleep
Men with this sleep apnea condition who took just 50mg of sildanefil
before they went to sleep saw their breathing problems grow severely
worse at night.
In the first study, researchers led by Dr. Christiane Neves from the
Universidade Federal de São Paulo , Brazil examined thirteen men with
an average age of 43 who had severe obstructive sleep apnea. The men
were either given a single 50 mg pill of sildenafil or a placebo. The men
who had taken the sildaenfil showed many more breathing
interruptions and also they took in far less oxygen during sleep than
the men who were not on sildenafil.
In the second study, in 2010, the same group of researchers confirmed
the results of the first study and found something else. They discivered
that men who had taken sildenafil were much less likely to arouse from
these apnea episodes. When you stop breathing at night, most of us
wake up. These men were much less likely to arouse from these
distressing breathing interruptions. Not good news.
Why This is a Big Deal
If sildanefil causes breathing problems only at night, why is this a big
deal? After all, the studies that have found a link between Viagra use
and breathing problems only found these problems with people who
have “obstructive sleep apnea”. How big a problem can this be,
The surprising answer is that it can be a very big problem. The truth is
that obstructive sleep apnea –episodes in which someone actually stops
breathing at night, sometimes dozens or even hundreds of times a
night –is not as rare as you might think. The scientists who found the
link between sildanefil and obstructive sleep apnea noted that up to
80% of people who have obstructive sleep apnea, do not know that
they have it.
That bears repeating: 80% of us who stop breathing at night are not
aware of it.
Now, we have some serious problems with both these studies. For one
thing, the sample size –just 13 men—is far too small to base any
general conclusions on. Second, we’d like to see studies from other
universities confirming and verifying the results to have more
confidence in the conclusions. Still, you should not be complacent about
the potential side effects of sildenafil on your breathing.
What Should You Do?
The pros and cons of taking Viagra or another generic sildenafil are
now well known. But few men are willing to give up the little blue pills
despite any warnings about side effects. So, if you are committed to
taking the little blue pills, you should take precautions by at least
having your doctor also screen you for sleep apnea.
Think of it this way -- taking a little blue pill increases your chances of
waking up the next day with a smile on your face. But, getting screened
for obstructive apnea increases your chances of waking up at all.
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