Infertility means you cannot make a baby (conceive).
Infertility is grouped into two categories:
- Primary infertility refers to couples who have not become pregnant after at least 1 year of unprotected sex (intercourse).
- Secondary infertility refers to couples who have been pregnant at least once, but never again.
Inability to conceive; Unable to get pregnant
A wide range of physical and emotional factors can cause infertility. Infertility may be due to problems in the woman, man, or both.
Female infertility may occur when:
- A fertilized egg or embryo does not survive once it sticks to the lining of the womb (uterus)
- The fertilized egg does not attach to the lining of the uterus
- The eggs cannot move from the ovaries to the womb
- The ovaries have problems producing eggs
Female infertility may be caused by:
- Autoimmune disorders, such as antiphospholipid syndrome (APS)
- Cancer or tumor
- Clotting disorders
- Growths (such as fibroids or polyps) in the uterus and cervix
- Birth defects that affect the reproductive tract
- Excessive exercising
- Eating disorders or poor nutrition
- Use of certain medications, including chemotherapy drugs
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Older age
- Ovarian cysts and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- Pelvic infection or pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
- Scarring from sexually transmitted infection or endometriosis
- Thyroid disease
- Too little or too much hormones
Male infertility may be due to:
- A decrease in sperm count
- Sperm being blocked from being released
- Sperm that do not work properly
Male infertility can be caused by:
- Environmental pollutants
- Being in high heat for prolonged periods
- Birth defects
- Heavy use of alcohol, marijuana, or cocaine
- Too little or too much hormones
- Older age
- Cancer treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation
- Scarring from sexually transmitted diseases, injury, or surgery
- Retrograde ejaculation
- Use of certain drugs, such as cimetidine, spironolactone, and nitrofurantoin
In healthy couples under age 30 who have sex regularly, the chance of getting pregnant is about 25 - 30% per month.
A woman's peak fertility occurs in her early 20s. After age 35 (and especially 40), the chances that a woman can get pregnant drops considerably.
The main symptom of infertility is the inability to become pregnant. Specific symptoms depend on what is causing the infertility.
Infertility can cause many painful emotions in one or both partners.
Exams and Tests
When you should seek treatment for infertility depends on your age. It is recommended that women under 30 should generally try to get pregnant on their own for 1 year before seeking testing.
Infertility testing involves a complete medical history and physical examination of both partners.
Blood and imaging tests will be done. In women, this may include:
- Blood tests to check hormone levels, including progesterone and follicle stimulating hormone
- Checking body temperature first thing in the morning to check if the ovaries are releasing eggs
- FSH and clomid challenge test
- Hysterosalpingography (HSG)
- Pelvic ultrasound
- Luteinizing hormone urine test (ovulation prediction)
- Thyroid function tests
Tests in men may include:
Treatment depends on the cause of infertility. It may involve:
- Education and counseling
- Fertility treatments such as intrauterine insemination (IUI) and in vitro fertilization (IVF)
- Medicines to treat infections and clotting disorders
- Medicines that help the woman grow and release eggs from the ovaries
It is important to recognize and discuss the emotional impact that infertility has on you and your partner, and to seek medical advice from your health care provider.
You can increase your chances of becoming pregnant each month by having sex at least every 3 days before and during ovulation. It is especially important to do so 72 hours before ovulation begins.
Ovulation occurs about 2 weeks before the next menstrual cycle (period) starts. If a woman gets her period every 28 days, the couple should have sex at least every 3 days between the 10th and 18th day after the period starts.
See: Infertility - support group
As many as 1 in 5 couples diagnosed with infertility eventually become pregnant without treatment.
More than half of couples with infertility become pregnant after treatment, not including advanced techniques such as in vitro fertiliziation (IVF).
Infertility can have a big emotional impact on you and your partner.
Depression, anxiety, and marriage problems may occur.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you are unable to get pregnant.
Preventing sexually transmitted infections (STIs), such as gonorrhea and chlamydia, may reduce your risk of infertility.
Maintaining a healthy diet, weight, and lifestyle may increase your chances for getting pregnant and having a healthy pregnancy.
Take a prenatal or multivitamin containing folate before and during pregnancy. This lowers your risk for miscarriage and developmental problems in the baby.
Jose-Miller AB, Boyden JW, Frey KA. Infertility. Am Fam Physician. 2007;75(6):894-856.
Lobo RA. Infertility: etiology, diagnostic evaluation, management, prognosis. In: Katz VL, Lentz GM, Lobo RA, Gershenson DM eds. Comprehensive Gynecology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2007: chap 41.
Speroff L, Fitz M, eds. Clinical Gynecologic Endocrinology and Infertility. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa; Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2005.
Brassard M, Melk YA, Baillargeon JP. Basic Infertility Including Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. Medical Clinics of North America. Sept 2008;92(5).
Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington, School of Medicine; Susan Storck, MD, FACOG, Chief, Eastside Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, Bellevue, Washington; Clinical Teaching Faculty, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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