Subfertility Versus Infertility

Causes and Treatment Options

Group of three overweight people walking
Men and women who are overweight may be subfertile -- it may take them longer to be able to get pregnant. Losing weight can improve their fertility. Rolf Bruderer/Getty Images

If you and your partner have been trying to conceive a baby and have not yet been able to, your fertility specialist may inform you that you, your partner, or both of you as a couple are subfertile. While dismaying at first, it shouldn't necessarily dishearten you.

Subfertility simply means that you, as a couple, are less fertile than other couples like you. It doesn't mean you won't get pregnant; it simply suggests that it may be more difficult based on the various measures used to assess your fertility.

Differentiating Between Subfertility and Infertility

Someone who is described as being subfertile still has a good chance of getting pregnant on their own, although it may take longer than others. This is compared to someone who is infertile, needs medical assistance to get pregnant and is unlikely to get pregnant without help.

Another difference between the terms is that infertility means you have been trying to get pregnant for at least one year without success. Subfertility, on the other hand, simply means that it's taking longer than average to get pregnant and that you have been trying for a period of less than a year.

Neither the term subfertile nor infertile should be confused with a person considered sterile. Someone who is sterile is unable to get pregnant by any means.

Causes and Diagnosis of Subfertility

The causes of subfertility are essentially the same as those for infertility and can vary by partner.

For women, causes may include ovulation problems, age-related factors, uterine problems, and the scarring of reproductive organs due to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).

In men, the primary cause is low sperm count caused by anything from infection to endocrine problems. In some cases, the combined characteristics of the male and female partner can contribute the subfertility.

Initial diagnostic techniques can include:

Other diagnostic techniques (laparoscopic, hysteroscopic) may be used if indicated.

Treatment of Subfertility

The main difference between couples that are subfertile and those that are infertile is in how the condition is treated. In subfertile couples, treatment may not be so immediate or aggressive, particularly in the early stage.

Instead, your specialist may opt for lifestyle changes that are easier to implement and offer fewer side effects or complications Lifestyle changes might include:

  • avoiding smoking which affects both male fertility and female fertility
  • exercising moderately but not excessively (which can affect sperm count and a woman's menstrual cycle)
  • monitoring your basal body temperature more closely
  • adjusting the frequency of sexual intercourse (studies suggest too frequent sex may further reduce an already lower sperm count)
  • weight reduction as obesity can affect fertility
  • avoiding sexual lubricant that can affect sperm motility
  • avoiding overheating the testes (through hot baths, saunas, or showers)
  • changing from briefs to boxer to also prevent the overheating of the testes

If these interventions are unable to lead to conception, other medical treatments may be explored including fertility medications, medical devices, surgery, or a combination of treatments.

Source:

Anwar, S. and Anwar, A. "Infertility: A Review on Causes, Treatment, and Management." Women's Health and Gynecology. May 2016; 2(6):1-5.

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