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What Is Infertility?
Learn the basics about infertility, when to see a doctor and five steps you can take to improve fertility.

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image of happy couple What Is Infertility?

It seems like everyone's doing it - having babies, that is. From young moms at the mall to 40-something celebrities, some women make it seem like the easiest thing in the world. But for some, getting pregnant is anything but easy.

In the U.S., about one in 10 couples ends up seeking treatment for infertility. Infertility is defined as the inability to get pregnant after trying for one year. Thanks to the wide range of possible treatments, most of those couples do get pregnant. Medication or minor surgery can overcome most problems.

What causes infertility?
There are many different possible causes of infertility. Some couples make the mistake of assuming that the problem must lie with the woman. In fact, infertility affects men and women about equally.

  • In about 40 percent of cases, the problem lies with the man. The most common problem is low sperm count, which can have a number of causes.
  • In another 40 percent, the woman has fertility problems. Some common causes include:
    • Ovulation problems
    • Endometriosis
    • Polycystic ovary syndrome
    • Pelvic inflammatory disease
  • In about 10 percent, both partners have problems that interfere with fertility.
  • In the remaining 10 percent, the cause is unknown.

Age is an important factor in fertility. A woman's fertility peaks around age 25 and begins to decline after that, especially after 35. A man's fertility may also decline after 35.

When should we see a doctor?
How long you should wait before seeing a doctor about infertility depends on the woman's age.

  • If you are 30 or younger, see your doctor if you haven't conceived after 10 to 12 months. A year can seem like a long time, but most younger couples will conceive within a year of trying.
  • If you are 35 or older or have a history of fertility problems, experts advise seeing your doctor after six months of trying. A woman's chances of getting pregnant decline in her thirties. You could still get pregnant but it may take longer, so see your doctor early.

When the time comes, both partners should have a physical exam. Your doctor will review your past and present health and may do tests to look for clues to what's affecting your fertility.

What can we do to improve our chances?
To give yourselves the best chance of success, try the following tips:

  • Have sex every two days. This will help ensure that you are taking advantage of your most fertile days and allows the sperm count rebuild.
  • If you smoke, quit. Smoking lowers fertility in women, and it may affect men, too.
  • Keep your weight in a healthy range. Being either overweight or underweight can affect ovulation. In men, it may affect sperm count.
  • Avoid alcohol. It can cause menstrual and ovulation problems, and if you do get pregnant, it increases the risk of birth defects and miscarriage. In men, too much alcohol can lead to low sperm count.
  • Limit caffeine. Drink no more than two cups a day of caffeine beverage.


By Lila Havens, Staff Writer
Created on 06/24/1999
Updated on 08/30/2009
  • National Women's Health Information Center. Infertility.
  • Henrich JB. Menstrual cycle and fertility. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd edition. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2008. Accessed March 20, 2009.
  • American Fertility Association. A baby, maybe?
  • American Society for Reproductive Medicine. Frequently asked questions about infertility.
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