A large number of side-effects have been attributed to testosterone. In our clinical experience, the incidence of significant adverse effects with treatment producing physiological testosterone levels is low, and many side effects attributed to testosterone are mainly relevant to supraphysiological replacement. Some adverse effects are specific to a given mode of delivery and have already been described. Potential adverse effects concerning the prostate have also been discussed and require appropriate monitoring of symptoms, PSA and digital rectal examination. Other tumors which may be androgen responsive include cancer of the breast and primary liver tumors, and these are both contraindications to testosterone treatment
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Overall, few patients have a compelling contraindication to testosterone treatment. The majority of men with late onset hypogonadism can be safely treated with testosterone but all will require monitoring of prostate parameters HDL cholesterol, hematocrit and psychological state. It is also wise to monitor symptoms of sleep apnea. Other specific concerns may be raised by the mode of delivery such as local side effects from transdermal testosterone.
In a recent study of male workers, men with low testosterone levels had an increased chance of severe erectile dysfunction (Kratzik et al 2005), although such a link had not been found previously (Rhoden et al 2002). Certainly erectile dysfunction is considered part of the clinical syndrome of hypogonadism, and questions regarding erectile dysfunction form part of the clinical assessment of patients with hypogonadism (Morley et al 2000; Moore et al 2004).
Testosterone is used as a medication for the treatment of males with too little or no natural testosterone production, certain forms of breast cancer, and gender dysphoria in transgender men. This is known as hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), which maintains serum testosterone levels in the normal range. Decline of testosterone production with age has led to interest in androgen replacement therapy. It is unclear if the use of testosterone for low levels due to aging is beneficial or harmful.
More can be learned from a large, randomized, placebo-controlled trial of finasteride treatment in 18,800 men aged 55 or more. Finasteride is a 5α-reductase inhibitor which acts to prevent the metabolism of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone (DHT) – the most active androgen in the prostate. The trial showed a greater overall incidence of prostate cancer in the control group, but men treated with finasteride were more likely to have high grade tumors (Thompson et al 2003), suggesting that reduced androgen exposure of the prostate may delay the presentation of prostate cancer and/or promote advanced disease in some other way.
Cross-sectional studies conducted at the time of diagnosis of BPH have failed to show consistent differences in testosterone levels between patients and controls. A prospective study also failed to demonstrate a correlation between testosterone and the development of BPH (Gann et al 1995). Clinical trials have shown that testosterone treatment of hypogonadal men does cause growth of the prostate, but only to the size seen in normal men, and also causes a small increase in prostate specific antigen (PSA) within the normal range (Rhoden and Morgentaler 2005). Despite growth of the prostate a number of studies have failed to detect any adverse effects on symptoms of urinary obstruction or physiological measurements such as flow rates and residual volumes (Snyder et al 1999; Kenny et al 2000, 2001). Despite the lack of evidence linking symptoms of BPH to testosterone treatment, it remains important to monitor for any new or deteriorating problems when commencing patients on testosterone treatment, as the small growth of prostate tissue may adversely affect a certain subset of individuals.