12 Potential Signs of a Fertility Problem

infertility risk factors

Verywell / Emily Roberts

Infertility refers to how long you have been trying to conceive unsuccessfully. While there are possible early warning signs of infertility as well as risk factors (things that make it more likely you'll have difficulty getting pregnant), some couples don't have any signs or symptoms of infertility. If you do, it's important to consult a fertility specialist.

If you have been trying to get pregnant for one year without success (or for six months, if you’re age 35 or older), then your doctor will likely diagnose you with infertility.

Because of this rule of thumb, many couples wonder if they have to try to get pregnant for a whole year before they would be able to tell if there is a problem. However, there's no need to wait if you suspect you're having trouble getting pregnant. Here are some questions you and your partner can consider if you think you might be dealing with infertility. If you answer yes to any of these questions, talk to your doctor.

Signs of a Fertility Problem

If you are actively trying to have a baby, there are some signs to look for that may mean it's less likely you will get pregnant without help. While some signs of fertility problems are invisible, there are some key risk factors that may make conception more challenging, including the following:

  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • Light or heavy bleeding and cramps
  • Advanced maternal age (35 or older)
  • Male infertility
  • Being overweight or underweight
  • Recurrent miscarriage
  • Chronic illness
  • History of cancer
  • History of sexually transmitted infections
  • Drug, smoking, or alcohol use
  • Exposure to toxic chemicals
  • Exposure to high temperatures

Irregular Menstrual Cycles

When menstruation begins, having irregular periods can be normal. It takes the body a while to get regulated. However, once you are through your teenage years, your menstrual cycles should be regular. Having an irregular cycle can be a red flag for infertility because it can be a sign of an ovulation problem.

Talk to your doctor if your cycles are unusually short or long (less than 24 days or more than 35 days), they come unpredictably, or you don't get your period at all.

Irregular periods can have several causes. One of the most common causes of irregular cycles and ovulation-related infertility is polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Other possible causes for irregular periods include:

Light or Heavy Bleeding and Cramps

Bleeding between three to seven days can be considered normal. However, you should tell your doctor if your bleeding is very light or extremely heavy and intense. There are also other period-related signs that could indicate a fertility problem, including:

  • Severe menstrual cramps
  • Significant changes in bleeding heaviness
  • Significant changes in the length of bleeding days
  • Unusual spotting between cycles

Menstrual cramps that are so intense that they interfere with your daily life can be a symptom of endometriosis or pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). Both conditions can cause infertility.

Endometriosis and PID can get worse over time, so it's important you do not delay in seeking treatment if you have symptoms of either condition.

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% chance of conceiving in any given month, while a 40-year-old woman has only a 5% 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 it is for women. Research has found that as age increases, male fertility and sperm health decrease (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 conditions. Older male age has also been associated with increased rates of autism and schizophrenia.

Surveys and research studies have found that many people are unaware of how much female fertility declines with age. People frequently overestimate their chances of conceiving at age 40 or 44. They may also assume IVF treatment alone can solve the fertility issues (it may not).

One 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:

  • Begin by age 32 for one child (90% chance)

  • Begin by age 27 for two children

  • Begin by age 23 for three children

Open to IVF
  • Begin by age 35 for one child (90% chance)

  • Begin by age 31 for two children

  • Begin by age 28 for three children

IVF treatment is also impacted by the male partner's age. One study found that each additional year of paternal age had an 11% increased odds of not achieving pregnancy and a 12% increase in the odds of not having a live birth.

While younger couples statistically have greater chances of getting pregnant than older counterparts, young men and women can also experience infertility.

Male Infertility

Male factor infertility isn't always obvious, as there are rarely symptoms (though sexual dysfunction can be an infertility red flag). 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.


Your weight plays a major role in your fertility. Being overweight or underweight can lead to trouble conceiving. In fact, obesity is believed to be one of the most common causes of preventable subfertility.

Research has found that losing 5% to 10% of your body weight can jump-start ovulation for women with obesity.

Being overweight or underweight can also have an adverse effect on male fertility. A meta-analysis suggested that men with a BMI below 20 might be at risk for lower sperm concentration and sperm counts. Obese men have been found to have lower levels of testosterone and lower sperm counts.

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a dated, biased measure that doesn’t account for several factors, such as body composition, ethnicity, race, gender, and age.

Despite being a flawed measure, BMI is widely used today in the medical community because it is an inexpensive and quick method for analyzing potential health status and outcomes.

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

Recurrent Miscarriage

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 uncommon, occurring in nearly 20% of pregnancies. That said, repeated or recurrent miscarriage is not common. Only 1% 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 also lead to fertility problems. 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 menstrual cycles.

Tagamet (cimetidine), a medication used to treat peptic ulcers, as well as some hypertension medications can cause male factor infertility. These medications can also cause problems with sperm production or the sperm's ability to fertilize an egg.

History of Cancer

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), talk to your doctor about the potential effect these treatments could have on your fertility.

History of STIs

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can also cause infertility. Infection and inflammation from chlamydia or gonorrhea can cause blockage of the fallopian tubes. Not only can this make unassisted pregnancy impossible, it also places a woman at an increased risk for an ectopic pregnancy.

If untreated, chlamydia and gonorrhea can lead to a condition called pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 8 women with PID experience infertility.

Untreated sexually transmitted infections can also cause fertility issues in men. Scar tissue in the male reproductive tract can make semen transfer ineffective or even impossible.

Chlamydia and gonorrhea do not usually cause noticeable symptoms in women, which is why screening for STIs is important. Many sexually transmitted infections are symptomless in women, yet silently affect the reproductive organs.

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

Smoking and Alcohol Use

While most people are aware of the risks of using tobacco and alcohol while pregnant, smoking and drinking while trying to get pregnant can also cause problems.

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

Smoking has also been connected to erectile dysfunction. Quitting cigarettes might be able to reverse the effect.

In women, smoking can speed up the process of ovarian aging, bringing on earlier menopause. If you quit early enough, you might be able to reverse some of the damage.

Heavy alcohol use can also lead to fertility problems for men and women. While most studies have found that a few drinks a week don't typically cause harm to fertility, 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.

Quitting smoking and reducing alcohol use may positively impact fertility and will have a positive impact on health, but research has shown that some of the damage to the body (including the reproductive system) caused by smoking might be reversible—particularly in men.

Toxic Chemical Exposure

If your job involves close contact with toxic chemicals, you might 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, ask your doctor about steps you can take to protect yourself.

High Temperatures

You might have heard the claim that high temperatures are bad for sperm in relation to the "boxers or briefs" argument. The thinking was that because boxers are less restrictive and have more airflow, it leads to cooler testicular temperatures and healthier sperm.

While the research isn't clear on whether boxers or briefs matter, what is known is that wearing extremely tight shorts or underwear (especially when made from a non-breathable fabric) might have an impact on sperm health.

There are also other sources of heat that can be troubling for sperm health:

  • Heated car seats
  • Hot tubs and 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

In most cases, the heat damaging effects are reversible. Evidence suggests that wet heat (such as hot tub exposure) does not cause infertility. That said, removing heat exposure has been shown to improve sperm motility.

In one small study of infertile men who used a hot tub at least 30 minutes a week, the researchers asked them to stop for six months. While sperm motility counts measurably improved, the men in the study remained infertile. About half of the men were also heavy smokers, suggesting that infertility may arise from multiple lifestyle factors that need to be addressed simultaneously.

A Word From Verywell

About 80% of couples will conceive within six months of beginning to try to get pregnant. About 90% 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, talk to your doctor. If you’re 35 years old or older, you should see your doctor after six months of trying without success to get pregnant.

If you have a possible sign of infertility before the one-year mark, your doctor can run some basic fertility tests. If everything comes back normal, you can continue trying on your own. If there is a problem, you will have caught it much sooner and your odds of successful fertility treatment will be higher.

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Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Rachel Gurevich, RN
Rachel Gurevich is a fertility advocate, author, and recipient of The Hope Award for Achievement, from Resolve: The National Infertility Association. She is a professional member of the Association of Health Care Journalists and has been writing about women’s health since 2001. Rachel uses her own experiences with infertility to write compassionate, practical, and supportive articles.