Most men do not think much about fertility or the health of their sperm until it comes time to start a family. For the best chances of starting a healthy pregnancy you need to make large numbers of sperm that are good swimmers, and that ‘know’ how to fertilise the egg when they arrive. Sperm also has to contain genetic information (DNA) in good condition.
Whether young or old, with a current partner or not, you should be looking to protect your fertility so that natural conception can happen when you’re ready to have children. In about half of couples having trouble getting pregnant naturally, the problem lies with men.
Sperm problems can be many things and are often more than one thing. Sperm can be:
- Low in numbers
- Abnormal in shape
- Poor swimmers (so they have difficulty getting to the egg)
- Unable to bind to the egg or get inside the egg
- Unable to fertilise the egg
- Genetically abnormal so that they do not make normal embryos so that pregnancy does not happen
- Unable to get into the right place due to sexual problems (erectile dysfunction, impotence, or other sexual problems)
In many cases, there are no treatments to correct poor sperm problems, which means that assisted reproductive technologies such as insemination (IUI) or in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments may be needed.
The sperm’s journey
Testicles are important for fertility because this is where sperm and the male sex hormone testosterone are made. After sperm are made in the testicles, they travel with a few drops of fluid through the male reproductive system. As they move through the system, the sperm mix with more fluid made by the prostate and seminal vesicles, until the sperm are released (ejaculated) at the time of sexual climax (orgasm).
How to help yourself
There are certain things that you can do to protect your fertility, Your chances of fathering a child may be better if you pay attention to your overall health, which means:
- Exercising regularly
- Having a healthy diet
- Watching your weight
- Not smoking
Other things that can affect your fertility are:
Avoid spas, saunas and hot baths if trying tofather a child. Wearing boxer shorts may also help keep things cool down there.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as Gonorrhoea, chlamydia, syphilis, warts… these little nasty’s can not only be painful, but some of them can affect your fertility. STIs, especially untreated gonorrhoea and chlamydia, can cause blockages in the sperm tubes so that sperm can’t move on from the testicles (where they are produced) and into the semen and ejaculated. Surgery to fix the blocked tubes isn’t always possible. STIs can cause fertility problems in women so getting treatment can also stop the spread of disease to a female sexual partner.
The prostate sits underneath the bladder and adds fluid to protect sperm on their journey through the reproductive system. Infections of the prostate, known as prostatitis, can cause pain in the abdomen and fever. As the sperm move through the prostate into the urethra, swelling of the prostate may stop sperm from passing through the reproductive system.
Mumps is a viral infection that can be caught by anyone at any age, but it’s much more dangerous for adult men. The mumps virus can totally destroy the tubes that make sperm and permanently stop sperm production.
DRUGS and medical treamtents
Although fertility is often the last thing you think about when diagnosed with cancer, radiation therapy and chemotherapy can cause long-term problems with sperm production. Often sperm can be stored before starting treatments.(See Sperm Banking/Storage page) With low doses of radiation and some types of chemotherapy, sperm production can return to normal after a period of time. Ask your doctor about sperm storage before having these treatments, and find out when it is safe to try to become pregnant naturally after the treatments have stopped.
Fertility or sexual performance problems can also happen with other prescribed drugs such as some drugs used to treat inflammatory conditions, depression, epilepsy, high blood pressure and diabetes. Well known to cause low sperm counts are the drugs Proviron and testosterone injections, which are sometimes mistakenly given to increase sperm counts.
Taking anabolic steroids for body building or competitive sports damages your body. Besides causing acne, weight gain and changes in mood, your testicles shrink in size and sperm production stops. In other words, “steroids = sterile”. Once the drugs are stopped, sperm production may take one to two years to return to normal.
Fertility can also be affected by using other illegal drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine and heroin because they lower testosterone levels and sex drive. Not having regular sex can make it more difficult to become pregnant. There are many other illegal drugs that affect sexual performance and may reduce sperm production or even damage the sperm themselves. We simply don’t know all the risks – so don’t take the chance!
New evidence shows that the sperm DNA (genetic material) is damaged by the chemicals in tobacco smoke – this may lower the chance of a healthy pregnancy and may affect your child’s future health.
Drinking alcohol is a part of daily life for some people and drinking in small amounts is not harmful to fertility. However, binge drinking and regular heavy drinking can harm your health. Drinking heavily may cause liver problems, and affect a range of body functions including sexual and reproductive function. Also, drinking heavily, even if there is no damage to the liver, may damage the function of the testicles.
Your work environment
Pesticides, heavy metals, toxic chemicals and radiation may affect the quality and quantity of sperm you produce. Men should try to avoid exposure to these harmful chemicals. For men who must work with such agents, sticking to occupational health and safety guidelines is crucial.
If in doubt – ask!
‘Think before you get the snip’. Men planning a vasectomy should think about storing sperm before having the surgery.
Research is shows that as you enter middle age, you become less fertile and it may take longer to get a partner pregnant. Reasons for this may include having sex less often, erectile problems, or other serious health problems that happen more often with ageing.