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Alternative Names Return to topInability to conceive; Unable to get pregnant
Definition Return to top
Primary infertility describes couples who have never been able to become pregnant after at least 1 year of unprotected sex (intercourse).
Secondary infertility describes couples who have been pregnant at least once, but have not been able to become pregnant again.
Causes Return to top
Causes of infertility include a wide range of both physical and emotional factors. A couple's infertility may be due to female factors, male factors, or both:
Female infertility may be due to:
Female infertility may be caused by:
Male infertility may be due to:
Male infertility can be caused by:
In healthy couples both under age 30, having sex regularly, the chance of getting pregnant is only 25 - 30% per month. A woman's peak fertility occurs in her early 20s. As a woman ages beyond 35 (and especially after age 40), the likelihood of getting pregnant drops to less than 10% per month.
When to seek help for infertility depends on your age. For women under age 30, it is generally recommended to try to conceive for at least a year before seeking testing.
Symptoms Return to top
The physical symptom of infertility is the inability to become pregnant.
Experiencing infertility can bring on a range of painful emotions in one or both members of the couple. In general, having at least one child already tends to soften these painful emotions.
Exams and Tests Return to top
A complete medical history and physical examination of both partners is essential.
Tests may include:
Treatment Return to top
Increase your chance of becoming pregnant each month by having sexual intercourse at least every 3 days in the weeks leading up to and through the expected time of ovulation. Ovulation occurs about 2 weeks before the next period starts. So, if you get your period every 28 days, you should have sexual intercourse at least every 3 days between the 7th and 18th day after you get your period.
Treatment depends on the cause of infertility. It may involve:
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.
Support Groups Return to top
Many organizations provide informal support and referrals for professional counseling. See infertility - support group.
Outlook (Prognosis) Return to top
A cause can be determined for about 80 - 85% of infertile couples.
Getting the right therapy (not including advanced techniques such as in vitro fertilization) allows pregnancy to occur in 50 - 60% of couples who were infertile.
Without any treatment, 15 - 20% of couples diagnosed as infertile will eventually become pregnant.
Possible Complications Return to top
Although infertility itself does not cause physical illness, it can have a major emotional impact on the couples and individuals it affects.
Couples may have problems with their marriage. Individuals may experience depression and anxiety.
When to Contact a Medical Professional Return to top
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you are unable to get pregnant.
Prevention Return to top
Because sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) often cause infertility, practicing safer sex behaviors may minimize the risk. Gonorrhea and chlamydia are the two most common causes of STD-related infertility.
STDs often don't have symptoms at first, until PID or salpingitis develops. These conditions scar the fallopian tubes and lead to decreased fertility, infertility, or an increased risk of ectopic pregnancy.
Getting a mumps vaccine in men has been shown to prevent mumps and its complication, orchitis. The vaccine prevents mumps-related sterility.
Some forms of birth control, such as the intrauterine device (IUD), carry a risk for pelvic infection, especially in women with more than one sex partner and when sexually transmitted diseases occur.
Maintain a healthy diet, weight, and lifestyle to optimize your chances for getting pregnant and having a healthy pregnancy.
Remember to take either prenatal or multivitamins containing folate while you are trying to become pregnant to decrease your risk for miscarriage and fetal abnormalities.
References Return to top
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.Update Date: 3/17/2009 Updated by: Linda Vorvick, MD, Family Physician, Seattle Site Coordinator, Lecturer, Pathophysiology, 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, Redmond, WA; 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.