An illustration showing someone holding a Viagra tablet in their hand. [Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
DOCTOR'S NOTE with DR AMIR KHAN | AL JAZEERA

● There is no scientific evidence that Viagra can be used to treat COVID-19 ●

(AL JAZEERA) — Most people will be familiar with Viagra, otherwise known as sildenafil, for its use in treating erectile dysfunction. But a nurse in the UK recently claimed that the drug had saved her life when she was being treated for COVID-19.

Speaking to the British newspaper, The Sun, 37-year-old Monica Almeida described how she had been admitted to hospital on November 16 and placed on a ventilator after her condition deteriorated. She told the newspaper that she was given Viagra, which opened up her airways and saved her life. Almeida eventually left the hospital on December 24.

So, can Viagra really be used to treat COVID-19?

Well, we have to be very careful when discussing any potential treatments for COVID-19. We have seen in the past, with drugs like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, that people have taken them and caused themselves harm before studies have shown them to be effective. Neither ivermectin nor hydroxychloroquine has been proven to be effective against COVID-19 in scientific studies.

It is important to note that while Viagra is available to buy over the counter without a prescription in many countries, there are potential side effects associated with the drug. Some of the most common are headaches, hot flushes, vision problems and an upset stomach. It can also adversely interact with other medications. When taken by someone who is also using heart medication, for example, it can lead to dangerously low blood pressure and cause them to collapse.

There is a real danger in even a small news story promoting the use of a drug such as Viagra to successfully treat COVID-19. Two years of living through a pandemic has left many people incredibly fearful of the virus and willing to try anything to protect themselves. With that in mind, it is important to say that Viagra or any drugs related to it are not currently approved for the treatment of COVID-19.

An illustration showing there was no one on the streets during UK’s first lockdown in May2020. [Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Vaccines provide the best protection against coronavirus. If you do test positive for the virus, and feel unwell, regardless of your vaccination status you should contact a healthcare professional who can assess you and decide if your symptoms warrant any of the scientifically proven treatments.

The more we learn about COVID-19 and how it affects the cellular pathways in our bodies, the more we can put forward new treatments to combat it. But every new treatment must undergo rigorous testing and show clear benefits before being recommended for use.

Viagra has been shown to be effective at treating high blood pressure in the lungs, a condition known as pulmonary hypertension. And in 2020, a paper looked into the potential benefit of using Viagra to treat COVID-19 by exploring the science behind it. According to the researchers, both bacterial and viral lung infections can cause widespread inflammation in the lungs. COVID-19 has been shown to do this. As inflammation sets in, it can damage the lung tissue, cause the formation of blood clots and increase the risk of pneumonia. The study proposed that Viagra could potentially counteract some of these effects and wanted funding to investigate this further. But it did not offer any conclusions beyond this.

Viagra is thought to increase the amount of a substance known as nitric oxide, which can improve blood flow and circulation to the lungs. A study in China is looking into the potential beneficial effects of Viagra on the lungs of those being treated for COVID-19 with oxygen rather than ventilation. They believe it may open up the tiny blood vessels affected by inflammation and improve circulation and oxygen delivery to lung tissue.

Trials are continuing but there isn’t any firm evidence yet to suggest Viagra should be used to treat COVID-19. For the nurse in the UK, it is likely that it was the combination of medication and care she received from NHS staff that saved her life rather than any single treatment. So, until we have robust scientific evidence that Viagra can be used to treat the virus, people must not be tempted to buy it to self-medicate.