Definition and prevalence of subfertility and infertility

Hum Reprod. 2005 May;20(5):1144-7. doi: 10.1093/humrep/deh870. Epub 2005 Mar 31.


A common definition of sub- and infertility is very important for the appropriate management of infertility. Subfertility generally describes any form of reduced fertility with prolonged time of unwanted non-conception. Infertility may be used synonymously with sterility with only sporadically occurring spontaneous pregnancies. The major factor affecting the individual spontaneous pregnancy prospect is the time of unwanted non-conception which determines the grading of subfertility. Most of the pregnancies occur in the first six cycles with intercourse in the fertile phase (80%). After that, serious subfertility must be assumed in every second couple (10%) although--after 12 unsuccessful cycles--untreated live birth rates among them will reach nearly 55% in the next 36 months. Thereafter (48 months), approximately 5% of the couples are definitive infertile with a nearly zero chance of becoming spontaneously pregnant in the future. With age, cumulative probabilities of conception decline because heterogeneity in fecundity increases due to a higher proportion of infertile couples. In truly fertile couples cumulative probabilities of conception are probably age independent. Under appropriate circumstances a basic infertility work-up after six unsuccessful cycles with fertility-focused intercourse will identify couples with significant infertility problems to avoid both infertility under- and over-treatment, regardless of age: Couples with a reasonably good prognosis (e.g. unexplained infertility) may be encouraged to wait because even with treatment they do not have a better chance of conceiving. The others may benefit from an early resort to assisted reproduction treatment.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Birth Rate
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infertility / epidemiology*
  • Infertility / etiology*
  • Infertility, Female / epidemiology
  • Male
  • Pregnancy
  • Prevalence