A common condition, female infertility is an inability to get pregnant and have a successful pregnancy. This is typically diagnosed after a woman has tried to get pregnant (through unprotected sex) for 12 months without a pregnancy. There are many treatment options for infertility, including medications to correct hormonal issues, surgery for physical problems and in vitro fertilization (IVF).
Infertility is a disease in which the ability to get pregnant and give birth to a child is impaired or limited in some way. For heterosexual couples (man and woman), this is usually diagnosed after one year of trying to get pregnant (but may be diagnosed sooner depending on other factors). For heterosexual couples, one third of causes of infertility are due to a male problem, one third are due to a female problems, and one third are due to combination or unknown reasons. When the cause of the infertility is found to come from the female partner, it’s considered female infertility or “female factor” infertility.
Infertility is a common disease. At least 10% of women deal with infertility of some kind. The chances of being infertile increases as a woman ages.
There are many possible causes of infertility. However, it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause, and some couples have “unexplained” infertility or “multifactorial” infertility (multiple causes, often both male and female factors). Some possible causes of female factor infertility can include:
Many factors can increase a woman’s risk of female infertility. General health conditions, genetic (inherited) traits, lifestyle choices and age can all contribute to female infertility. Specific factors can include:
As a woman ages, her chances of becoming pregnant decreases. Age is becoming a more common factor in female infertility because many couples are waiting to have children until their 30s or 40s. Women over age 35 have a higher risk of having fertility issues. The reasons for this include:
Your healthcare provider will need to know about your menstrual periods, any past pregnancies, miscarriages, pelvic pain, unusual vaginal bleeding or discharge. You may also be asked about any past pelvic infections or sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Some questions may include:
Some tests may be done in your healthcare provider’s office as a physical exam. These tests may include:
Other tests may need to be done in a lab. These tests can include:
Once your healthcare provider has diagnosed female infertility and pinpointed the cause, there are a variety of treatment options. The cause of the infertility guides the type of treatment. For example, structural problems may be treated through surgery, while hormonal medications can be used for other issues (ovulation issues, thyroid conditions).
Many patients will require artificial insemination (injecting washed sperm into the uterus after ovulation) or in vitro fertilization (fertilizing eggs with sperm in the lab to make embryos, then transferring the embryo into the uterus).
Adoption and gestational surrogacy may also be options for women with infertility who wish to start a family.
Most forms of female infertility cannot be predicted or prevented. However, the risk factors that may contribute to infertility can, in some cases, be controlled to prevent this condition. For example, lifestyle modifications, such as reducing alcohol consumption and quitting smoking, may be beneficial to one’s fertility, as is maintaining a healthy weight and developing good exercise habits. It’s important to regularly visit your healthcare provider and discuss any other risks you may have for female infertility.
The outlook (prognosis) for female infertility depends greatly on the individual and the underlying cause of infertility. In cases where medication can be used to treat an ovulatory condition, or a simple surgical procedure can be used to correct a structural abnormality (polyps or solitary fibroids), the outlook is generally positive. Talk to your doctor about your family history, risk factors and underlying medical issues to learn more about your prognosis.
If you are a woman in a heterosexual relationship with regular intercourse and menstrual cycles, you should see your doctor after 12 months of trying to conceive (become pregnant) without using birth control (six months if you are over the age of 35). It’s also important to regularly visit your healthcare provider once you become sexually active.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Infertility can be incredibly stressful. If you have been trying to get pregnant for 12 months without success — or six months if you are over the age of 35 — reach out to your healthcare provider. Once you are diagnosed, your provider can help you develop a plan moving forward
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/08/2020.
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