Most women spend years trying not to get pregnant, only to later realize that making a baby is actually a lot harder than most people let on. In fact, about 1 in 8 couples will run into fertility issues, and about one-third of infertility cases are because of something going on with the female partner.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of women don’t find out they might have issues conceiving until they’ve received an official evaluation by a fertility specialist — which is typically after they’ve already started trying to conceive. Sometimes, though, there are clues hinting that you may be dealing with a fertility issue.
While most of these symptoms may seem pretty trivial, you’ll want to tell your doctor about them as soon as you can. Diagnosing and treating an infertility issue early can drastically improve your chances of getting pregnant later on. Below are just a few major overlooked signs of infertility in women.
An irregular menstrual cycle is a huge sign of infertility issues, according to Evelyn Mok-Lin, an obstetrician-gynecologist and reproductive endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center.
There’s a wide range of what constitutes an irregular cycle, which can make it a bit tricky to differentiate between a normal period and an irregular one. Most commonly, periods that come very infrequently, too often, or not at all are a big red flag. This typically means you’re not ovulating regularly, making it very difficult to conceive, Mok-Lin explained.
Spotting or intermittent bleeding can also be a cause for concern. Those who “have regular cycles but have intermenstrual bleeding, including bleeding with intercourse, may indicate a structural issue like a polyp, fibroid or infection,” Mok-Lin said. Additionally, regular cycles that experience a significant change in the quality or quantity of blood or cycles that are extremely painful may be an indicator that there’s an underlying issue, Mok-Lin added.
There are a handful of reasons your monthly flow could be out of whack — you may have a thyroid issue or a hormonal imbalance — and, most of time, these issues can be treated.
Pelvic pain, especially during sex or bowel movements
If you’re consistently in excruciating pain either during sex or when you’re going to the bathroom, there’s a good chance you may have endometriosis — a condition that affects nearly 10% of women in their reproductive years. Sometimes, this pelvic pain can strike randomly for no apparent reason, and will likely feel dull, sharp, crampy or stabbing. Endometriosis also causes very intense or painful periods.
“In endometriosis, the inner lining of the uterus grows outside the ovary and fallopian tubes and may potentially impact fertility by distorting anatomy, changing the function of the tube, and decreasing the [functionality] of the uterus to the embryo,” said Sinem Karipcin, an obstetrician-gynecologist and reproductive endocrinologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
While endometriosis can make it pretty difficult to conceive, many women with the painful condition go on to have successful, healthy pregnancies.
Coarse hair in odd places
Coarse, dark hairs on your lip, chin, throat, or tummy aren’t just annoying — they could also be a sign of polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, a common hormonal disorder that can make getting pregnant difficult.
If you’ve noticed new hair growth on your face and body, it might be time to visit your doctor to figure out what’s going on. If it is PCOS, hormonal birth control — like a pill, patch or vaginal ring — can typically restore your hormonal balance and keep the condition under control. Your doctor can also go through your fertility options as well.
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, 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. Depending on the prolactin levels, women may experience infertility due to weak ovulations or lack of ovulation,” Karipcin said.
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.
If you consistently experience hot flashes, or a sudden feeling of warmth that envelops your body, you might be dealing with premature menopause or perimenopause, depending on your age. Although most women go through menopause around age 50, some will go through it much, much 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, Mok-Lin said. Most of the time, this runs in the family, so if your mother experienced early menopause, your own chances might be higher.
Most women with infertility have no symptoms
Unfortunately, many women with infertility have no signs or symptoms other than not being able to conceive, according to Tara Budinetz, a reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist with Abington Reproductive Medicine/St. Luke’s University Health. And this is the main reason so many women don’t realize they may be infertile until it’s too late.
“Having no ‘obvious’ signs or symptoms of infertility is deceptive and misleading to patients and often causes delays in evaluation and treatment,” Budinetz said. That said, if you’re contemplating becoming pregnant anytime in the near-ish future, it’s worth visiting a doctor or fertility specialist.
Most causes of infertility can easily be treated when detected early on. The key is to be proactive, Karipcin said. The sooner you can spot and treat any of these signs and symptoms, the more options you’ll have when the time comes.