Male Infertility: Helping You Sort Fact From Fiction

Wear briefs if you like, but watch that cell phone

Man's underwear in red

There’s ample information — as well as misinformation — out there about the causes of male infertility, or the inability to father a child. Let’s take a look at the most common suspects and see what’s truth and what’s myth.

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Dangers of heat

The testicles are generally slightly cooler than the abdomen because they are outside the torso. Elevated temperatures in the testicles can kill sperm. It takes roughly three months for sperm counts to recover.

People often suspect underwear, laptops and saunas or hot tubs of having the potential to raise the temperature of testicles, and consequently, to lower sperm counts. But research shows otherwise.

Wearing underwear.  Many men worry whether they should switch from briefs to boxers. The fear is that the tighter briefs keep the testicles closer to the body, make them warmer and lead to infertility.

“Studies show that it probably doesn’t matter,” says Edmund Sabanegh, MD, Director of the Center for Male Fertility  and Chair of the Urology Department at Cleveland Clinic. “We tell our patients to wear what is comfortable.”

Using laptops.  Portable computer designers made laptops convenient enough to place directly in your lap. They generate heat, though, so they can raise the temperature of the testicles over time.

Some laptop pads shield the testicles from the heat, but only for a short period of time. Dr. Sabanegh recommends using your laptop on a desk or table.

Sitting in saunas and hot tubs. Even in a hot sauna, the testicles – because of their structure – may be able to remain slightly cooler.

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Hot tubs, though, are problematic because the testicles are completely submerged in the hot water and have no way to cool off. Instead, they warm up to a higher level than doctors consider safe for healthy fertility, Dr. Sabanegh says.

Damage from cell phone radiation

It’s best to keep your cell phone as far from the testes as you can, Dr. Sabanegh says.

While there are a variety of factors involved – where you keep your phone and what kind you have, for instance – the goal is to minimize things that impair fertility.

 “We’ve done a lot of research on cell phones,” Dr. Sabanegh says. “In studies where we directly exposed sperm to cell phone radiation, it did damage the sperm.”

Impact of chemicals

Certain drugs — legal and illegal — can have a negative effect on a man’s fertility. If you have concerns about your fertility, talk to your doctor before starting a new medication or having any treatments. 

Using tobacco. If you smoke, kicking the habit can improve your fertility.

Semen analysis of smokers reveals trace elements from tobacco. These chemicals lower sperm count and sperm’s ability to move spontaneously and actively. Tobacco also appears to fragment the DNA in the sperm, which damages genetic material.

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Dr. Sabanegh strongly encourages his patients to quit smoking forever, if possible. But smokers need to quit at least during the time they are trying to conceive.

Using marijuana. Much of the research done on marijuana shows  it can alter fertility substantially. It affects the motion of the sperm and lowers testosterone levels.

It’s best to avoid marijuana, especially during the time a man and his partner are trying to conceive, Dr. Sabanegh says.

Using anabolic steroids.Some people think that if a man uses anabolic steroids, the synthetic hormone will increase testosterone and improve fertility. Actually, it does just the opposite.

The testicles sense there is enough testosterone in the body, so they can completely shut down.

Discuss the use of steroids with your physician, especially if you are trying to conceive, Dr. Sabanegh says.

More information

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