Then Comes the Baby Carriage…Or Maybe Not

Infertility—the inability to conceive after six months to a year of unprotected sex—is a common problem in the US. More than 7 million people struggle to have a baby, often facing frustration and confusion along the way. Fortunately, many people who are treated for fertility problems are able to conceive after therapy.

Infertility affects men and women nearly equally. About one-third of cases can be attributed to the male partner, one-third are related to the female partner, and the remainder are caused by a combination of problems with both partners or by unknown factors.

In women, increasing age, irregular ovulation (release of eggs from the ovaries), abnormal anatomy, or scarring or blockages in the fallopian tubes are the main causes of infertility. Gynecologic conditions, such as polycystic ovary syndrome, endometriosis, and fibroids, can also make it difficult for a woman to conceive. Lifestyle factors, such as smoking, eating a poor diet, or being underweight, overweight, or obese, may also make it harder to get pregnant.

Male fertility also declines with age, but at a slower rate. Infertility in men usually involves problems with the sperm. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or an injury to the testicles, such as overheating (from spending too much time in a hot tub, for example) or a reaction to medication, can lead to short-term fertility issues.

If you are having trouble getting pregnant, see your ob-gyn. Your doctor may order tests to understand what is causing the problem. You may also be referred to a doctor who specializes in infertility (reproductive endocrinologist) or to other counselors and specialists.

Standard fertility testing for women includes a physical exam and a health history survey that focuses on menstrual function and a woman’s history of pregnancy, STDs, and birth control use. Blood and urine samples may be analyzed to confirm that normal ovulation is taking place. X-rays or ultrasounds may be used to view and inspect the reproductive organs for any abnormalities. To test for male fertility, a semen sample will be checked for the number, shape, and movement of the sperm and for signs of infection.

Infertility can be treated in a variety of ways depending on the cause. If you are overweight or obese, losing weight may improve your chances of getting pregnant. Medications that stimulate the ovaries or regulate blood insulin levels (which can interfere with ovulation) may be prescribed. Your doctor can also help you decide if surgery or assisted reproductive therapies, such as in vitro fertilization, are right for you.

National Infertility Awareness Week is April 21–27, 2013. Learn more.

Subscribe to the ACOG President’s Blog to receive an email alert every time a new blog is posted.

Chlamydia and Gonorrhea Screening a Must for Women 25 and Younger

Each year, approximately 19 million Americans contract a sexually transmitted disease (STD). STDs are infections spread from one person to another during sexual activity. Chlamydia and gonorrhea are the most commonly reported STDs.

There are an estimated 2.8 million new cases of chlamydia and 700,000 cases of gonorrhea in the US each year. Both infections are most common in young women and both pose a serious risk to women’s reproductive health. If left untreated, gonorrhea and chlamydia can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), an infection of the uterus, fallopian tubes, and other parts of the pelvis. PID may cause chills, fever, pelvic pain, infertility, and ectopic pregnancy.

Many women may never know they have an STD—the symptoms can be vague. Within two days to three weeks of infection, women may experience a yellow vaginal discharge; painful or frequent urination; vaginal burning or itching; redness, swelling, or soreness on the outside of the vagina (vulva); pain in the pelvis or abdomen during sex; abnormal vaginal bleeding; and rectal bleeding, discharge, or pain. Many women and men will experience no symptoms at all.

ACOG and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that all sexually active women age 25 and younger be regularly screened for chlamydia and gonorrhea. Women over 26 should be screened for chlamydia and gonorrhea annually if they have multiple sexual partners or if their partner has multiple sexual contacts. Despite these recommendations, the CDC recently reported that only 38% of young sexually active women are screened for chlamydia and that more than 20% who test positive become reinfected within six months.

ACOG urges ob-gyns to talk to their patients about STDs and screen those at high risk of infection. Chlamydia and gonorrhea can be treated with antibiotics. To lower the risk of reinfection, ACOG suggests that ob-gyns write a prescription both for their patient and her sexual partner, who may be unlikely or unable to get treatment on his or her own. It is important that both partners are treated and take all of their medicine before resuming sexual activity.

Using a male or female condom correctly every time you have sex can also help reduce transmission of STDs. Practice abstinence or monogamy, or limit your number of sexual partners. And be up front: it’s better to have a frank conversation with your partner about your sexual histories beforehand than to be unpleasantly surprised down the road.

April is STD Awareness Month. For more information, check out the CDC’s STD Awareness Month page.

Subscribe to the ACOG President’s Blog to receive an email alert every time a new blog is posted.

Guest Blog: The Recipe for Preventing Unintended Pregnancy

Erika E. Levi, MD, MPH

Ob-gyns are on the front lines of the effort to decrease the rate of unintended pregnancy, which accounts for half of all pregnancies in the US. Now, we have more information about how we can best accomplish this goal.

Recent findings from the Contraceptive CHOICE Project made news headlines, and for good reason. The project—which included more than 9,000 contraception-seeking adolescents and women in the St. Louis region who were at risk for unintended pregnancy—found that the rate of unintended pregnancy dropped with just two simple interventions. Women were given:

  1. A short contraceptive counseling session that covered all methods of reversible contraception and emphasized the superior effectiveness of long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) methods: intrauterine devices (IUDs) and hormonal implants.
  2. The contraceptive method of their choice for free.

Seventy-five percent of the women selected a LARC method. Among all the women, there were lower rates of abortion, including repeat abortion, and lower rates of teen births. These findings support ACOG’s recommendations on the use of LARC methods as first-line contraceptive options to reduce unintended pregnancy and highlight the benefits of providing women with no-cost access to contraception.

ACOG advises ob-gyns to:

  • Provide counseling on all contraceptive options, including implants and IUDs, even if the patient initially states a preference for a specific contraceptive method
  • Encourage implants and IUDs for all appropriate women, including those who’ve never given birth
  • Adopt same-day insertion protocols. Screening for STIs may also occur on the day of insertion, if indicated
  • Avoid unnecessary delays to LARC initiation, such as waiting for a follow-up visit after an abortion or miscarriage or waiting to time insertion with the menstrual cycle
  • Advocate for coverage of all contraceptive methods by all insurance plans
  • Support local, state, federal, and private programs that provide contraception, including IUDs and implants

The problem of unintended pregnancy in the US is not going away. As ob-gyns, we are uniquely positioned to help women avoid unintended pregnancies. Let’s work with our patients and help them make the best choices for their reproductive health.

Erika E. Levi, MD, MPH, is a Family Planning Fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

A Plan to Defeat HPV

In a recent blog post titled “HPV and a Vaccine: Why We Can Beat Cervical Cancer,” William Smith, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, looks in depth at the conundrum of cervical cancer in the US today. On one hand, we can now classify cervical cancer as a largely preventable disease. On the other, more than 4,000 women in the US still die from cervical cancer each year. If we are to drive these numbers down, HPV vaccination must play an essential role.

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a known cause of cervical, vulvar, vaginal, and anal cancers in women; penile and anal cancers in men; and throat, esophageal, and other head and neck cancers in both sexes. The HPV vaccine has the potential to protect young women—and men—from many, if not all, of these cancers. Recommended for girls and women ages 9–26 and boys and men ages 11–26, HPV vaccination works best if given before any exposure to HPV or the onset of sexual activity. But despite the recommendations of ACOG and other health organizations and women’s advocates, vaccination rates have remained low.

Many parents are sensitive to discussions regarding their young daughters (and sons) and sexually transmitted infections (STI). However difficult the concept, parents would be remiss in avoiding a potentially life-saving vaccine for these reasons. HPV vaccination is just another tool in a parent’s arsenal to shield their children and family from cancer. It’s no different than routinely vaccinating infants against hepatitis B—another STI that can increase the risk of liver cancer—which has been commonplace for roughly 30 years.

As a parent, some things just make good sense. And with the benefits that it provides, HPV vaccination is clearly one of those things. Protect your children; get them vaccinated.