AS many as one in seven couples will run into fertility issues when they're trying for a baby.
And when you've been trying to fall pregnant for so long, many women can't help but wonder about the dreaded 'I' word – infertility.
Unfortunately, most people won't find out if they have issues conceiving until they've seen a fertility specialist.
There are 2 types of infertility:
- Primary infertility – where someone who's never conceived a child in the past has difficulty conceiving
- Secondary infertility – where someone has had one or more pregnancies in the past, but is having difficulty conceiving again
However, there are some often surprising signs to look for which may suggest you're infertile.
While most of these symptoms may seem pretty trivial on the surface, experts recommending telling your doctor about them as soon as you can.
Here, Dr Sarah Jarvis, GP and clinical director of Patient.info, takes us through some of the few overlooked signs of infertility in women.
1. Irregular periods
One of the key signs of infertility issues is having an irregular menstrual cycle.
Most commonly, periods that come very infrequently, too often, or not at all are a big red flag as this usually means you’re not ovulating regularly – making it very difficult to get pregnant.
In particular, regular cycles that experience a significant change in the quantity or quality of blood or cycles that are extremely painful may be an indicator that there’s an underlying issue.
Intermittent bleeding or spotting can also be a cause for concern.
Despite this, there are plenty of reasons why your monthly flow might be out of sync – and it probably won't have anything to do with infertility.
You may have a thyroid issue or a hormonal imbalance — and, most of time, these issues can be treated.
2. Hair growing in odd places
It may just seem like an annoyance if you have dark hairs growing on your lip, chin, throat, or tummy – however this could also be a sign of infertility.
Having coarse hair in odd places could be a sign of polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS.
Polycystic ovary syndrome affects one in five women and has an impact on how ovaries function – meaning sufferers can struggle to release an egg to be fertilised making it often extremely difficult to fall pregnant.
Dr Jarvis says that being overweight is often a sign of PCOS, as well as acne.
If it is PCOS, hormonal birth control such as the pill, can typically restore your hormonal balance and keep the condition under control.
3. Hot flushes
If you consistently experience hot flushes, or a sudden feeling of warmth all over your body, you might be dealing with premature menopause or perimenopause – depending on your age.
While in the UK the average age of the menopause is 51, some will go through it a lot earlier.
Early menopause, which marks the end of a woman’s fertile years, is one of the hardest fertility issues to treat and requires the most immediate diagnosis and intervention.
Most of the time, this runs in the family, so if your mother experienced early menopause, your own chances might be higher.
4. Pelvic pain – especially during sex
If you’re consistently in agonising pain either during sex or when you’re going to the bathroom, there’s a good chance you may have endometriosis.
As Dr Jarvis says: "Endometriosis is a condition where pieces of endometrium – the tissue that lines the womb – are found outside the womb.
"Common symptoms include extremely painful periods, painful sex, pain in your lower tummy or pelvis even when you’re not having periods, and sometimes bleeding between periods.
"It can be hard to diagnose, even with a scan – the best way to diagnose it is with a laparoscopy, where a small telescopic instrument is put into your tummy cavity under general anaesthetic."
Dr Jarvis also adds that pelvic/tummy pain can be a sign of Pelvic inflammatory disease, or PID.
She says: "Pelvic inflammatory disease, or PID, is caused by sexually transmitted infections and can block your fallopian tubes, affecting your fertility.
"In the short term, symptoms include fever, vaginal discharge and severe pain. In the longer term, you may not have a fever or discharge but you’re likely to have pelvic/tummy pain and painful sex."
5. Milky discharge from your breasts
If you’re not pregnant or breastfeeding and notice a milky discharge on your breasts, you may have high levels of prolactin, which is the hormone that tells your body to make breast milk.
While this may seem harmless, breast milk can be a symptom of infertility.
Elevated prolactin levels disrupt the way sex hormones are produced.
Infertility risk factors
There are a number of factors that can affect fertility in both men and women.
- Age – female fertility and, to a lesser extent, male fertility decline with age; in women, the biggest decrease in fertility begins during the mid-30s
- Weight – being overweight or obese (having a BMI of 30 or over) reduces fertility; in women, being overweight or severely underweight can affect ovulation
- Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) – several STIs, including chlamydia, can affect fertility
- Smoking – can affect fertility in both sexes: smoking (including passive smoking) affects a woman's chance of conceiving, while in men there's an association between smoking and reduced semen quality
- Alcohol – for women planning to get pregnant, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all to keep risks to your baby to a minimum; for men, drinking too much alcohol can affect the quality of sperm (the chief medical officers for the UK recommend men and women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week, which should be spread evenly over 3 days or more)
- Environmental factors – exposure to certain pesticides, solvents and metals has been shown to affect fertility, particularly in men
- Stress – can affect your relationship with your partner and cause a loss of sex drive; in severe cases, stress may also affect ovulation and sperm production
There's no evidence to suggest caffeinated drinks, such as tea, coffee and colas, are associated with fertility problems.
Depending on the prolactin levels, women may experience infertility due to weak ovulations or lack of ovulation.
You may have an underlying thyroid issue or a benign tumor that’s causing the prolactin spike.
Your doctor might prescribe a medication to lower your prolactin levels, depending on the root of the issue, to get your ovulation cycle back to normal.
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