Although primarily a respiratory infection, COVID takes a toll on a number of other body systems. One of the prominent effects is to the circulatory system, as evidenced by an increased risk of heart attack after having COVID, and, yes, maybe erectile dysfunction too. More recent research has found yet another non-respiratory effect caused by COVID: impaired male fertility. The new study suggests that the coronavirus alters proteins found in the semen of men who recover from the virus, some of which are related to fertility.
For the study, published last month by the American Chemical Society, researchers examined semen samples from 10 healthy men and 17 men who had been diagnosed with and recovered from COVID. The men ranged in age from 20 to 45, and none of them had a history of infertility.
The team found that sperm from the men who had recovered from COVID had decreased motility and count. They also had an increase in abnormally shaped sperm compared to men who never had COVID.
The researchers looked closer at the semen collected from the participants, to the proteins inside of it. They found lower levels of 21 types of proteins and higher levels of 27 proteins in the semen of the recovered men compared to the control group. Two of the fertility-related proteins were present in less than half their expected numbers.
“Whether this is an impact of the virus or the ‘butterfly effect’ of the infection it causes remains to be understood, but the effect is profound in COVID-19 survivors,” the researchers wrote. “Hence, there is a need to assess fertility-related issues in recovered patients carefully.”
Scientists are still unraveling the acute effects of the coronavirus on the respiratory tract and other body systems, but also the myriad long-term effects we see in long COVID patients who have recovered from infection. More research is needed to uncover and isolate the long-term health implications of infection, which could include a decrease in male fertility.
“Even though the patients of COVID-19 appear to have recovered clinically, biological processes such as reproduction may be compromised,” the researchers wrote. “To further understand these processes, it would be intriguing to validate more of these dysregulated proteins in a more significant cohort split into grades of disease severity and long-term recovered patients longitudinally to confirm the implications of COVID-19.” In other words, it’s unclear whether mild COVID could impact male fertility, or if only severe COVID could have an effect.
Because the cohort for this study was small, and samples could not be segregated based on severity of disease, more research is needed to determine if these results are repeatable in a larger, more diverse cohort. So if you’ve had COVID and want to have another kid, don’t worry just yet, especially because any actual impacts of potential difficulties conceiving after COVID have not yet been measured. If you haven’t had COVID, however, this study shows that although we know much more about the disease than we did two years ago, there are still plenty of unknowns, and you would do best to still try to avoid it.