Are You Unknowingly Lowering Your Sperm Count? When to Worry

A urologist weighs in on commonly suspected culprits

There’s ample information — and misinformation — out there about the causes of male infertility, or the inability to father a child.

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Many of these incorrect beliefs stem from the fact that regular exposure to highly elevated temperatures in the testicles can lower sperm counts.

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.

Let’s take a look at some of these commonly suspected culprits with Edmund Sabanegh, MD, Director of the Center for Male Fertility  and Chair of the Urology Department at Cleveland Clinic.

Tight 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. The result: warmer testicles and infertility.

“Studies show that it probably doesn’t matter,” Dr. Sabanegh says. “We tell our patients to wear what is comfortable.”

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.

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.

If you’re worried about infertility, it’s best to skip the hot tub, Dr. Sabanegh says.

Cell phones

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.”

Drugs

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 treatment.

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.

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.

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.