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Understanding Infertility

April 22, 2014
Dr. Sheree Boulet

Woman looking at pregnancy test resultsHave you known someone who had trouble getting pregnant? Have you had trouble yourself? Infertility is a common disease of the reproductive system that affects both women and men. In the U.S. between 2006 and 2010, about one in nine — or 6.7 million — women 15 to 44 had difficulty getting pregnant or staying pregnant. Likewise, nearly 4 million men 25 to 44 have seen a doctor for advice, testing, or treatment for infertility during their lifetime.

For most women, infertility is defined as not being able to get pregnant after one year of trying. For women over 35, infertility may be diagnosed after six months. Problems with the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus can all cause infertility, but one of the most important risk factors is age. A woman's chance of becoming pregnant decreases rapidly every year after 30, because she has fewer healthy eggs left, is more likely to have a miscarriage, and may develop other health conditions that can cause fertility problems. Smoking, alcohol use, stress, and extreme weight gain or loss can also affect a woman's ability to get and stay pregnant. Women who are having difficulty conceiving should talk to their doctor.

Infertility isn't just a woman's condition. Of the nearly 4 million men who seek help, 18 percent have physical problems that contribute to infertility. Medical conditions like diabetes and cystic fibrosis, trauma, infection, and treatment with chemotherapy or radiation can all affect a man's fertility, as can smoking, heavy alcohol use, testosterone supplementation, anabolic steroid use, illicit drug use, and exposure to environmental toxins.

Infertility can have devastating physical, emotional, and financial effects. But there is hope. Surgery, medications, intrauterine insemination, and assisted reproductive technology have all helped people with infertility have healthy pregnancies. But they can be expensive and time consuming, and they don't work for everyone. Also, health insurers don't always cover the costs.

Infertility is a common problem, but it can be hard to talk about. People affected by infertility may experience anger, loss, stress, and guilt. Non-profit and support groups offer resources and support for people dealing with infertility.

If a friend or loved one is struggling with infertility, it can be hard to know how you can support them. Learning about infertility and sharing the message that it is a common and important health concern for many people is a great first step. Some non-profit groups have tips on what to say, what not to say, and how to support your loved ones.

To learn more about infertility and its treatments, visit CDC's website.