Signs of infertility in men and women
LAST UPDATED: Dec 21, 2021
4 MIN READ
HERE'S WHAT WE'LL COVER
Despite the fact that many couples experience fertility struggles, when you’re the one having a difficult time conceiving, it can feel very frustrating and isolating. You may wonder why it’s taking so long to get pregnant or if there is something you could be doing to better your chances for a future pregnancy.
When it comes to your reproductive health, it’s not one-size-fits-all. It’s complex, and causes of infertility can stem from male factors, female factors, or a combination of both. And, to complicate things further, there usually aren’t any early signs of infertility (Lindsay, 2015).
In fact, most healthcare professionals only recommend fertility evaluations if a couple has been trying to get pregnant without success for a year. Anything short of that usually doesn’t warrant a fertility evaluation, unless there’s reason to believe that there’s a health issue that could lead to infertility (ACOG, 2020; Walker, 2021).
There are some things that may be suggestive of future fertility problems, so if you’re concerned about your ability to have kids, here’s what you need to know.
What are the signs of infertility?
In most cases, an inability to become pregnant is the first and only sign or symptom of infertility (Lindsay, 2015).
Experts usually define infertility as the inability to become pregnant after 12 months of regular, unprotected sex. However, that time threshold drops to six months if you’re older than 35. That’s because infertility is more common once women reach this age. Among women who are 34 or younger, rates of infertility range from 7% to 9%. This jumps to 25% among women aged 35 to 39. (Chandra, 2013, ACOG, 2020).
In couples under age 30 who are generally healthy, 20% to 37% are able to conceive in the first three months (ASRM, 2012).
Now that you have a better understanding of the numbers surrounding infertility, let’s take a closer look at what the signs of infertility may look like in women and in men.
Signs of infertility in women
Apart from the inability to become pregnant, irregular periods are a warning sign of female infertility (Lindsay, 2015). If a woman’s menstrual cycles are regular, predictable, and associated with common symptoms such as bloating, fatigue, and breast tenderness, these are all signs of healthy ovulation. However, if her periods are irregular or absent, or if she has painful periods, these may be warning signs of possible fertility concerns (Filip, 2020; Walker, 2021).
A history of past miscarriages is also a warning sign of infertility (Walker, 2021).
There are also some health issues or prior medical conditions (as well as a family history of certain medical problems) that are associated with an increased risk for infertility.
While none of these medical issues is a direct sign or symptom of fertility problems, they could all be considered risk factors. These include (Lindsay, 2015):
Family history of early menopause
Past ovarian surgery
Past diagnosis of a sexually transmitted infection (STI), such as chlamydia or gonorrhea (Tsevat, 2018)
History of chemotherapy or radiation treatment
Unexplained fatigue, hair loss, or weight gain, which may all be signs of an ovulatory disorder
History of pelvic infections or endometriosis
History of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
Again, these are not direct signs of infertility. They are better thought of as risk factors (Lindsay, 2015).
Infertility following an abortion
If you've had an induced abortion in the past, you might be wondering what impact, if any, it could have on your fertility in the future.
When it comes to abortions performed by a licensed medical professional, researchers have found no evidence of increased fertility risks or challenges (Johnson, 2020). The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) also states that having an abortion will not impact your fertility (ACOG, 2021).
However, if abortions are performed outside of licensed medical clinics or facilities, they can result in damage to a woman’s reproductive organs and infertility.
Signs of infertility in men
Male fertility is dependent on a man’s ability to produce and deliver healthy sperm via ejaculation. If a man can’t ejaculate, there’s really no way to detect low sperm count or other signs of infertility without some kind of medical test or examination.
However, some conditions that affect male fertility—including genetic syndromes or hormonal imbalances—may produce signs or symptoms. These could be thought of as indirect or secondary signs of infertility (Agarwal, 2020).
For example, several hormone-related conditions can reduce male fertility. These conditions can, in some cases, cause noticeable physical changes in a man’s appearance. Low amounts of facial hair growth, gynecomastia (enlarged breasts), or an unusually small penis or testicles may be indicators of hormone deficiencies that can reduce fertility.
Other medical conditions or concerns that may cause or contribute to male infertility include (Agarwal, 2020):
Erectile dysfunction or low sex drive
A history of genital or urinary tract infections
Scrotal cysts, varicoceles, blockages, or other abnormalities of the genitals
A history of chemotherapy or radiation
Past testicular trauma (injury)
Lifestyle risk factors such as obesity, smoking, or alcoholism
Once again, most of these are not strong indicators of infertility. These are better thought of as risk factors.
When to see a healthcare professional
Most experts in reproductive medicine don’t recommend a fertility evaluation unless a couple has been trying to get pregnant—meaning they’re having regular, unprotected sex—for at least 12 months. Again, this drops to six months among women older than age 35 (Walker, 2021).
If you are struggling with infertility, know that this does not necessarily mean that you can’t get pregnant in the future. There are infertility treatments available—like various fertility drugs or in vitro fertilization (IVF)—that may work. Your healthcare provider will help you come up with a plan so that you can continue on your journey to conceive.
While the risk factors or symptoms mentioned above might, in some cases, point to fertility issues, most of them are not strong indicators that a couple will struggle to get pregnant.
If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
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