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Last updated May 1, 2020. 4 minute read

Can women take Viagra? Will it work the same way?

Viagra was approved as a treatment for erectile dysfunction but has been used to treat arousal issues in women. Viagra treats some physical arousal issues but does not increase sexual desire.

Linnea Zielinski Written by Linnea Zielinski
Reviewed by Dr. Mike Bohl, MD, MPH

Money may be the leading cause of fighting in a couple, but some of the most heated disagreements have to be about sex. Mismatched libidos, even if it’s only a temporary thing, can strain a relationship and leave both parties feeling like their needs aren’t being met. Similar situations have left many women, and their partners, wondering if women can take Viagra.

Vitals

  • Viagra was approved as a treatment for erectile dysfunction but has been used to treat arousal issues in women.
  • Viagra treats some physical arousal issues but does not increase sexual desire.
  • Two medications have been released intended to be the “female Viagra.”
  • These medications act on brain chemistry in order to increase sex drive.
  • Each has its own potential side effects, and efficacy is limited at this time.

Viagra, also known as the little blue pill, is the brand name of sildenafil, one type of medicine called a PDE5 inhibitor that relaxes muscles in the penis and improves blood flow in order to treat erectile dysfunction (more commonly called ED). It’s also an extremely common prescription medication. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Viagra in 1998, and by the end of 2005, more than 27 million men worldwide (17 million of them in the United States) had been prescribed sildenafil for the treatment of ED (McMurray, 2007). Prescriptions of this medicine peaked in 2013, but it’s still widely-used (Kane, n.d.).

Can women take Viagra?

Yes, some women do take off-label sildenafil for low sex drive. Sexual dysfunction is increasingly common as we age, and it’s estimated that 40–45% of adult women and 20–30% of adult men experience it at least once at some point in their lives (Lewis, 2004). Sildenafil successfully increased arousal in postmenopausal women with female sexual arousal disorder (FSAD) who took part in one 12-week study, but there were some caveats. The medicine didn’t work for women who also had hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) (Berman, 2003).

Arousal is physical. FSAD refers to the occasional or reoccurring experience of being unable to get or maintain adequate lubrication and genital swelling long enough for sexual activity. (It’s just one of several conditions that fall under the umbrella term female sexual dysfunction or FSD.) Some of the women in the study done by Berman and colleagues experienced significant improvement in arousal sensation, lubrication, and orgasm. But the medication didn’t help with painful sex due to vaginal dryness and didn’t increase desire. Researchers believe that’s because desire is multi-faceted. Emotional and mental health both play into desire, neither of which Viagra addresses. The medicine also doesn’t affect your hormones, which play a role in sex drive (Monte, 2014). Overall, whether Viagra is an effective treatment for women is still debated.

It’s also important to note that “female Viagra” is not without side effects. Anyone taking Viagra may experience common side effects of the medicine such as headache, nausea, flushing, stuffy nose, and visual symptoms.

Viagra alternatives for women

Other prescription medications have emerged as targeted treatments for a range of issues women face in their sexual health, though. Flibanserin (brand name Addyi) and bremelanotide (brand name Vyleesi) are both FDA-approved medications created to treat female sexual interest/arousal disorder (FSIAD)—also called HSDD—in premenopausal women. Though Addyi is an oral medication and Vyleesi is an injection, they’re both aimed at addressing low sexual desire in women that is not caused by a medical or psychological condition.

But it’s important to note that, fundamentally, these medications are not like Viagra. Viagra is generally prescribed to people who want to have sex but are having physical problems that prevent sexual activity. Addyi and Vyleesi change brain chemistry in order to help people with the first part: wanting to have sex.

As we said, desire is complicated. Mental health can play a large role in desire or lack thereof. That’s why, in some cases, anti-anxiety medication is prescribed as a treatment for low sex drive. Individual or sex therapy may also help if the sexual problems stem from something mental or emotional. The Berman study didn’t include women who had current or previous experience with emotional or relationship abuse because it’s such a confounding factor and may contribute greatly to a lack of sexual desire (Berman, 2003). That’s why it’s important to meet with a healthcare professional to discuss your experience and potential reasons that desire may be low.

Potential risks and side effects of these alternatives

Although Addyi and Vyleesi address similar problems, they each have their own side effects. Addyi, the oral medication, may cause:

  • Sleep issues
  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Low blood pressure

Addyi also needs to be taken daily and should not be combined with alcohol. You should speak with your healthcare provider about whether the benefits outweigh the risks and potential side effects. On average, Addyi successfully increased satisfying sexual encounters per month (baseline of 2–3) by 0.5-1. The medication did not significantly increase daily sexual desire in study participants (Center for Drug Evaluation and Research Application Number 022526Orig1s000, 2015).

Vyleesi is an injection that, like Viagra for ED, is taken in preparation for a sexual encounter. This medication may cause:

  • Nausea
  • Flushing and hot flashes
  • Skin irritation or rash
  • Headaches

This medication cannot be taken more than once in 24 hours and should be limited to eight doses per month. About 25% of participants in studies on the efficacy of Vyleesi noted an improvement in sexual desire, and 35% experienced decreases in distress. But between the start of the study and the end, there was no increase in the number of satisfying sexual encounters for participants given the medication (FDA, 2019).