12 Potentional Signs You May Have a Fertility Problem

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There are possible early warning signs of infertility. There are also risk factors, things that make it more likely you may have difficulty getting pregnant. While many couples will have no signs or symptoms, if you do have any, you should talk to your doctor sooner than later.

Infertility is defined by how long you have been trying to conceive unsuccessfully. If you have been trying for one year without success—or for six months, if you’re age 35 or older—then your doctor will diagnose you as being infertile.

But do you have to try for a year to know if there may be a problem?

Here are some questions to ask yourself and your partner. If you answer yes to any of these, speak to your doctor before you spend a year trying on your own.

Irregular Menstrual Cycles

When menstruation begins, having irregular periods can be normal. It takes the body awhile to get regulated. Once you’ve passed your teenage years, your cycles should be regular. An irregular cycle can be a red flag for infertility problems and may be a sign of an ovulation problem.

If your cycles are unusually short or long (less than 24 days or more than 35 days), or they come unpredictably, speak with your doctor. If you don't get your periods at all, you absolutely must talk to your doctor.

There are a variety of causes for irregular periods. Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is one of the most common causes of irregular cycles and ovulation-related infertility.

Other possible causes for irregular periods include hyperprolactinemia, primary ovarian insufficiency, thyroid dysfunction, low ovarian reserves, being over or underweight, and excessive exercise.

Light/Heavy Bleeding and Cramps

Bleeding for anything between three to seven days can be considered normal.

However, if the bleeding is very light or extremely heavy and intense, you should see your doctor.

Other period-related symptoms that may indicate a fertility problem include:

Menstrual cramps that interfere with your daily life can be a symptom of endometriosis or pelvic inflammatory disease, both of which can cause infertility. Both of these diseases get worse with time, so it’s important you don’t delay seeking help.

Age: Older Than 35

Both female and male fertility declines with age. The risk of infertility increases at age 35 for women and continues to grow with time. A 30-year-old woman has a 20 percent chance of conceiving in any one month, while a 40-year-old woman has only a 5 percent chance. Women over 35 are also more likely to experience a miscarriage and to have a child with a congenital disease.

Male fertility is also affected by age, though not as drastically as in women. Research has found that with increased age, male fertility and sperm health decreases, including an increase in DNA-damaged sperm. Male age has been linked to an increased risk of miscarriage, the passing on of genetic problems, and some congenital disabilities.

Increased male age has also been associated with increased rates of autism and schizophrenia.

A number of surveys and research studies over the years have found that many women (and men) are unaware of how much female fertility declines with age. People frequently overestimate their chances of conceiving at age 40 or 44. Or they assume IVF treatment alone can solve the issue. (It can't.)

A fascinating study looked at what age a couple should start trying to have a family, based on how many kids they eventually want to have and whether they are open to IVF treatment.

If you’re not open to IVF treatment, you should start trying to conceive

  • By age 32, if you want a 90 percent chance of having one child
  • By age 27, if you want two children
  • By age 23, if you want three children

If you are open to IVF, the study suggests starting your family

  • By age 35, if you want a 90 percent chance of having one child
  • By age 31, if you want two kids
  • By age 28, if you want three kids

IVF treatment is also impacted by male age. One study found that for each additional year of paternal age, there was an 11 percent increased odds of not achieving pregnancy and a 12 percent increase in the odds of not having a live birth.

Of course, even if you are young, you’re not guaranteed a baby. Young men and women can also experience infertility.

Partner Fertility

Male factor infertility isn't always so obvious, and there are rarely symptoms. Usually, low sperm counts or inhibited sperm mobility is determined by a sperm analysis. (In other words, you'll need to go through fertility testing to discover the problem.)

But if your partner experiences sexual dysfunction, this could be an infertility red flag.

Weight

Your weight plays a major role in your fertility. Being overweight—or underweight—can lead to trouble conceiving. In fact, obesity may be one of the most common causes of preventable subfertility. If you are obese, research has found that losing five to ten percent of your weight can jump start ovulation. 

Being over or underweight can also have an adverse effect on male fertility. Men with a BMI below 20 have been found to have lower sperm concentration and sperm counts, while obese men have been found to have lower levels of testosterone and lower sperm counts.

If you are having difficulty with losing extra weight, talk to your doctor. Some hormonal causes of infertility can lead to weight problems. For example, PCOS increases your risk of obesity and happens to also be a cause of infertility.

Miscarriage Rate

Infertility is usually associated with the inability to get pregnant. However, a woman who experiences recurrent miscarriages may also need help getting pregnant.

Miscarriage is not that uncommon. It occurs in 10 to 20 percent of pregnancies. Repeated miscarriage is not common. Only one percent of women will miscarry three pregnancies in a row. If you’ve had two successive miscarriages, talk to your doctor.

Chronic Illnesses

Chronic diseases, as well as their treatments, can lead to fertility problems. For example, diabetes, untreated celiac disease, periodontal disease, and hypothyroidism can increase your risk for infertility.

Sometimes, treatments for chronic illnesses can negatively impact fertility. Insulin, antidepressants, and thyroid hormones may lead to irregular cycles.

Tagamet (cimetidine), a medication used in treating peptic ulcers, and some hypertension medications can cause male factor infertility. These medications may cause problems with sperm production or their ability to fertilize the egg.

Past Cancers

Some cancer treatments can lead to fertility problems. If you or your partner has gone through cancer treatments, especially radiation therapy that was near the reproductive organs, seeking feedback from your doctor is recommended.

History of STDs

Sexually transmitted illnesses (or STDs/STIs) can be the cause of infertility. Infection and inflammation from chlamydia or gonorrhea can cause blockage of the fallopian tubes. This can make pregnancy either impossible or put a woman at risk for an ectopic pregnancy.

The same applies for men. Left untreated, an infection can lead to scar tissue within the male reproductive tract, making semen transfer ineffective or even impossible.

Because chlamydia and gonorrhea do not usually cause noticeable symptoms in women, it's important that you've been screened for these STDs. Many sexually transmitted infections are symptomless in women. You may feel fine while the disease silently wreaks havoc on your reproductive organs

If you have any symptoms of an STI, see your doctor right away, and if you're at risk of contracting an STI, get regular checks even if you are asymptomatic.

Smoking and Alcohol Habits

Just about everyone knows drinking and smoking while pregnant is a big no-no. But smoking and drinking while trying to get pregnant is also a problem.

Smoking negatively affects sperm counts, sperm shape, and sperm movement, all important factors for conception. IVF treatment success has also been found to be poorer in male smokers, even when IVF with ICSI is used. (ICSI involves taking a single sperm and directly injecting it into an egg.)

Smoking is also connected to erectile dysfunction, so dropping the habit may reverse some of the adverse effects.

In women, smoking can speed up the process of ovarian aging, bringing on earlier menopause. The good news is that if you quit early enough, you may be able to reverse some of the damage. Heavy drinking can also lead to fertility problems, both for men and women.

Most studies have found that a few drinks a week won't cause any harm, but excessive drinking has been linked to lower sperm counts, poor sperm movements, and irregular sperm shape. One study found that with every additional drink consumed per week, the IVF success rate decreased.

Toxic Chemicals at Work

Does your job involve close contact with toxic chemicals? If so, you may be at greater risk for infertility and decreased sperm health.

Farmers, painters, varnishers, metal workers, and welders have all been found to be at risk for reduced fertility. If your job involves toxic chemical contact or high heat conditions, speak to your doctor. There may be more steps you can take to protect yourself.

High Temperatures

High temperatures are bad news for sperm. You've most likely heard of this in relation to the boxers versus briefs argument. The thinking was that boxers, being less restrictive and having more airflow, would lead to cooler testicular temperatures and healthier levels of fertility. The research isn't clear on whether boxers or briefs matter, although wearing extremely tight shorts or underwear, especially when made from a non-breathable fabric, may have an impact on sperm health.

More sources of sperm-troubling heat include:

  • Hot tubbing or long hot baths
  • Sitting for prolonged periods of time with your legs together (like at a desk job or while driving long distances)
  • Sitting with a laptop on your lap
  • Heated car seats

The heat damaging effects may have a longer lasting impact than you'd imagine, too. A very small study looked at men who attended a sauna twice a week, for 15 minutes, over a period of three months. When comparing to semen samples taken before the sauna visits, the researchers found decreases in sperm count and movement, as well as more DNA-damaged sperm.

The men in the study were again evaluated three months and six months after they stopped attending the sauna. Sperm health wasn't completely regained until six months after the men stopped attending the sauna sessions.

A Word From Verywell

About 80 percent of couples will conceive within six months, and about 90 percent will be pregnant after a year, if they are having well-timed sexual intercourse. If you don’t get pregnant after one year of trying, you should see your doctor. If you’re 35 years old or older, then you should see your doctor after six months of trying.

However, what if you have a possible sign of infertility before the one-year mark? What if you’re at risk for infertility?

In that case, talk to your doctor now. Your doctor can run some basic fertility tests. If everything comes back normal, you can continue trying on your own for a while longer. However, if there is a problem, you will have caught it much sooner, and your odds of successful fertility treatment will be higher.

Sources:

Crosnoe LE, Kim ED. "Impact of age on male fertility." Curr Opin Obstet Gynecol. 2013 Mar 13. [Epub ahead of print]

Berger, Amanda, Ph.D; Manlove, Jennifer, Ph.D.; Wildsmith, Elizabeth, Ph.D. "What Young Adults Know - and Don't Know - About Fertility Patterns: Implications for Reducing Unintended Pregnancies." Child Trends Research Brief. September 2012.

Garolla A, Torino M, Sartini B, Cosci I, Patassini C, Carraro U, Foresta C. "Seminal and molecular evidence that sauna exposure affects human spermatogenesisHum Reprod. 2013 Apr;28(4):877-85. doi: 10.1093/humrep/det020. Epub 2013 Feb 14.

Habbema JD1, Eijkemans MJ2, Leridon H3, Te Velde ER4. “Realizing a desired family size: when should couples start?” Hum Reprod. 2015 Sep;30(9):2215-21. doi: 10.1093/humrep/dev148. Epub 2015 Jul 15.

K. Mac Dougall, Y. Beyene, R.D. Nachtigall. "Age shock: misperceptions of the impact of age on fertility before and after IVF in women who conceived after age 40." Human Reproduction. (2012) doi: 10.1093/humrep/des409 First published online: November 30, 2012.

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