What's off-limits?

Sperm can be especially vulnerable to environmental factors, such as exposure to excessive heat or toxic chemicals. To protect your fertility:

  • Stay cool. Increased scrotal temperature can hamper sperm production. To protect your fertility, don't wear tight underwear or athletic shorts. If you bike or remain seated for long periods of time, take frequent breaks. Don't place a laptop computer directly on your lap. Avoid hot tubs, saunas and steamy baths.
  • Don't smoke. Men who smoke cigarettes are more likely to have low sperm counts. Smoking can also decrease sperm movement and cause sperm to be misshapen. If you smoke, ask your doctor to help you quit.
  • Limit the amount of alcohol you drink. Heavy drinking can reduce the quality and quantity of sperm. If you choose to drink alcohol, do so only in moderation.
  • Steer clear of illegal drugs. Like cigarettes, marijuana can decrease sperm movement and cause sperm to be misshapen. Cocaine and heroin also interfere with healthy sperm.
  • Avoid lubricants during sex. Personal lubricants — including saliva, most skin lotions, and K-Y jelly and similar products — can interfere with sperm movement. If necessary, use vegetable, safflower or peanut oil. You might also consider a lubricant such as Pre-Seed, which might be less likely to harm sperm.
  • Be cautious with medications. Calcium channel blockers, tricyclic antidepressants, anti-androgens and various other medications can contribute to fertility issues. Anabolic steroids can have the same effect. Chemotherapy drugs and radiation treatment for cancer can cause permanent infertility. If you're considering medications, ask your doctor about the impact on your fertility — or the possibility of retrieving and storing sperm before treatment.
  • Watch out for toxins. Exposure to pesticides, lead and other toxins can affect sperm quantity and quality. If you must work with toxins, do so safely. For example, wear protective clothing and equipment, and avoid skin contact with chemicals.

Does aging affect sperm health?

Women aren't the only ones who have biological clocks. Sperm movement and the number of healthy sperm might decline after age 50, affecting a man's fertility. Some research suggests that women who become pregnant by older men have a slightly higher risk of miscarriage. A father's increasing age has also been associated with a higher risk of both autism and schizophrenia in children.

When is it time to seek help?

Adopting healthy lifestyle practices to promote your fertility — and avoiding things that can damage it — can improve your chances of conceiving. If you and your partner haven't gotten pregnant after a year of unprotected sex, however, ask your doctor about a semen analysis. A fertility specialist also might be able to identify the cause of the problem and provide treatments that place you and your partner on the road to parenthood.

May. 05, 2012 See more In-depth