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What is Fertility?

What Is Infertility?

A diagnosis of infertility means you haven’t been able to get pregnant after a year of trying. Or, if you’re a woman over 35, it means you haven’t been able to get pregnant after six months. Women who are able to conceive but not carry a pregnancy to term may also be diagnosed with infertility.

Being diagnosed with infertility doesn’t mean that your dreams of having a child have come to an end. It may take some time, but a significant number of infertile couples will eventually be able to have a child. Some will do so on their own. Others will need medical assistance.

How Common Is Infertility?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost 11 percent of women have difficulty conceiving and carrying a child to term. Six percent of married women are infertile.

What Are the Risk Factors for Infertility?

Infertility is not just a woman’s problem. Men can be infertile, too. In fact, men and women are equally likely to have a fertility problem. According to, about one-third of infertility cases are attributable to female infertility. However, men’s problems account for another third of all infertility cases. The final third may be a combination of male and female infertility, or may have no known cause.

Risk factors for infertility include:

  • older age
  • smoking
  • history of sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • very high or very low weight
  • heavy alcohol use

The Biology of Pregnancy

Infertility occurs when a couple either has problems getting pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy. Knowing the steps of how pregnancy occurs can help you to better understand a diagnosis of infertility.


Hormones control the female menstrual cycle. As part of this cycle, they stimulate the maturation of an egg. This egg is released from the ovary at the time of ovulation. The follicle that remains in the ovary then produces progestin. This hormone helps prepare the uterus for implantation. Potential problems with ovulation include:

  • eggs not maturing during the menstrual cycle
  • eggs not being released from the ovaries
  • ovarian failure
  • insufficient progestin (this is also known as a luteal phase defect)

The Mayo Clinic estimates that one-quarter of female infertility is caused by ovulation problems.


The egg travels through a fallopian tube towards the uterus. If sperm is available, it may meet and fertilize the egg in the fallopian tube. To get to the fallopian tubes, sperm ejaculated during intercourse must move through the cervix and uterus.

Problems with this stage of conception include:

  • blocked or damaged fallopian tubes
  • cervical damage
  • low sperm count
  • problems with sperm motility or other functions
  • blockages that prevent sperm from getting into the semen


The fertilized egg must implant in the lining of the uterus. Once there, it can grow and develop into a baby.

Potential problems with this stage include:

  • damage to the uterine lining
  • hormone abnormalities

Content licensed from:

Written by: the Healthline Editorial Team
Medically reviewed on: Jul 30, 2014: Kenneth R. Hirsch, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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