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Female Infertility

Alternate Names

  • infertility in women

Definition

Infertility is defined as a couple's inability to become pregnant after one year of regular sex while not using any birth control. Female infertility means the does not conceive because of female factors.

What is going on in the body?

Certain events must take place in a woman's body for pregnancy to occur:
  • ovulation, which is the release of an egg from the ovary
  • the uniting of the egg and a man's sperm (fertilization or conception)
  • attachment of the embryo to the lining of the uterus
Factors that interfere with these events are known as female factors.
The inability to get pregnant may be caused by conditions in either partner. It is estimated that 30% of infertility is caused by male factors. An additional 30% is caused by female factors. The remaining 40% is caused by a combination of female and male factors.

Risks

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

There are many female factors that can make a couple unable to become pregnant. These may include conditions such as the following:
  • certain inherited conditions
  • endometriosis, a condition in which tissue that normally lines the uterus grows in other parts of the body
  • hormone imbalances, such as hypothyroidism
  • polycystic ovarian syndrome (CPOS), a condition that interferes with normal release of eggs
Diseases also can be a factor in infertility, for example:
  • autoimmune disorders, in which the body produces antibodies to fetal tissue
  • diseases such as diabetes
  • eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa
  • pelvic inflammatory disease, which is an infection of the female pelvic organs
  • sexually transmitted disease, such as Chlamydia or gonorrhea
Additional factors in infertility include the following:
  • chronic vaginal discharge
  • congenital abnormalities of the uterus
  • ectopic pregnancy, or implanting of the fertilized egg outside the uterus
  • emotional stress
  • excess caffeine and alcohol intake
  • excess weight loss or weight gain
  • exposure to diethylstilbestrol, also known as DES, as an infant in utero
  • irregular periods or menstrual cycles
  • previous elective surgical abortion or elective medical abortion
  • scarring of the fallopian tubes from abdominal or pelvic surgery
  • smoking
  • strenuous exercise
  • total lack of menstruation (amenorrhea)
  • two or more previous miscarriages
  • uterine fibroids or polyps
Women over the age of 35 are more likely to be infertile.

Prevention

What can be done to prevent the condition?

Some cases of female infertility may be prevented by taking the following steps:
  • Avoid excessive exercise.
  • Avoid smoking.
  • Control diseases such as diabetes and hypothyroidism
  • .
  • Follow good weight management guidelines.
  • Get early treatment for sexually transmitted infections or diseases.
  • Have regular physical examinations to detect early signs of infections or abnormalities.
  • Limit caffeine and alcohol intake.
  • Practice stress management.

Diagnosed

How is the condition diagnosed?

Diagnosis of infertility begins with a medical history and physical exam. The healthcare provider may order tests, including the following:
  • an endometrial biopsy, which tests the lining of the uterus
  • hormone testing, to measure levels of female hormones
  • laparoscopy, which allows the provider to see the pelvic organs
  • ovulation testing, which detects the release of an egg from the ovary
  • Pap smear, to check for signs of infection
  • pelvic exam, to look for abnormalities or infection
  • a postcoital test, which is done after sex to check for problems with secretions
  • special X-ray tests
  • sperm count and motility in the male partner

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the condition?

Infertility can create tension in a couple's relationship. Sexual relations may become less pleasurable. Fertility evaluations can be expensive. Eventually, 85% of couples find a cause for their inability to conceive. However, some couples never become pregnant, even with the newest treatments. Adoption may be the best choice in some cases.

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

Female infertility is not contagious. However, infertility can be caused by a sexually-transmitted disease, which may be transmitted to sexual partners.

Treatments

What are the treatments for the condition?

Treatment of infertility will depend on the cause. Without treatment, 15% to 20% of affected couples will eventually become pregnant. Treatment for female factors may include:
  • eating a healthy diet
  • exercising in moderation
  • having surgery to treat certain problems, such as endometriosis
  • learning about the best time to conceive
  • limiting caffeine and alcohol intake
  • making lifestyle changes, such as smoking cessation
  • taking antibiotics for sexually transmitted diseases
  • taking medications to cause ovulation, such as clomiphene (i.e., Clomid, Serophene) and menotropins
If these treatments don't work, other means of fertilization may be considered, such as:
  • artificial insemination. This involves placing sperm directly in the cervix or uterus.
  • intracytoplasmic sperm injection. This involves placing individual sperm cells directly inside the woman's eggs.
  • in vitro fertilization. This involves fertilizing the egg outside the womb and then returning it to the uterus.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

Following are some of the side effects of medications used to cause ovulation:
  • abdominal pressure or fullness
  • cysts on the ovaries
  • headaches
  • hot flashes
  • mood changes
  • multiple pregnancies, such as twins or triplets
  • ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which causes fluid shifts in the body
Antibiotics may cause allergic reactions, stomach upset, and rash. Surgery carries a risk of bleeding, infection, and reaction to anesthesia.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the condition?

Within a year after infertility is diagnosed, 80% to 85% of couples who have treatment get pregnant. It may take several attempts before a couple gets pregnant. Partners must decide how many and what kind of procedures they are willing to undertake.

Monitor

How is the condition monitored?

Should a pregnancy occur after treatment, early pregnancy testing can be done. The woman will have regular prenatal visits to ensure a healthy pregnancy. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the health care provider.

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