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Priapism is a painful erection of the penis that lasts for an extended time. The erection is not related to sexual stimulus or arousal.
Priapism can begin at a young age in boys with sickle cell disease. It can cause impotency (not able to have an erection), infertility (not able to have children), scarring, or permanent damage to the penis.
In boys with sickle cell disease, priapism is caused by the sickling of red blood cells in the penis.
Sickled red blood cells stick together, block vessels, and slow the movement of oxygen to the cells. The vessels in the penis are small and easily blocked when red blood cells sickle and stick together.
Blood cannot flow out of the penis because the vessels are blocked by sickled blood cells. If the erection continues, this is called priapism.
Priapism can be very painful and is a serious condition. Long episodes of priapism can result in scarring and impotence (the loss of the ability to have an erection).
If your child has an erection for more than 2 hours, take him to the emergency room for treatment.
Stuttering priapism is an erection that lasts longer than 30 minutes but less than 2 hours.
The erection may come and go over time but does not last more than 2 hours. Stuttering priapism may be a one-time event, or it may happen more than once.
The erection may go away by itself or after using some of these home treatments:
Acute or prolonged priapism is an episode that lasts for more than 2 hours. This is a serious event, and you should take your child to the emergency room right away.
Medicines to treat priapism work best if given within the first 4 hours after the beginning of an acute episode. If it is not treated, it can result in permanent damage.
The penis will be erect, painful, and tender.
Chronic priapism is a state of semi-erection that does not go away. It can last for days or weeks. It usually is not painful. It may keep the person from having a complete erection while the chronic priapism is present.
Chronic priapism can change to acute priapism very quickly. Talk with your child’s care team if they are having chronic priapism.
Your child cannot prevent priapism. But some things may help.
If you have questions about priapism, your child’s care team can help. Reach out to them to learn more about the condition.
Reviewed: September 2022