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Fertility drugs

Depending on your diagnosis, you can either take fertility drugs on their own or in combination with other treatments such as intrauterine insemination (IUI) or in vitro fertilisation (IVF). This page will outline the fertility drugs that can be taken on their own and who might be appropriate for this kind of treatment.

What are fertility drugs?

Fertility drugs can be used in the treatment of some women who have been trying to get pregnant but have been unable to do so naturally. They are the main treatment for women who have fertility issues related to polycystic ovary syndrome and men and women who have fertility issues related to hormone imbalances. The most common fertility drugs are:

  • Clomifene citrate (Clomid)
  • Metformin
  • Gonadotrophins
  • Bromocriptine and Cabergoline
  • Antioxidants and vitamins

Apart from antioxidants and vitamins, all of these drugs can only be obtained on prescription in the UK.

Who might be recommended to have fertility drugs?

Your doctor may recommend you have medication if:

  • You've been diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS).
  • You have a very irregular cycle or ovulation that’s totally unpredictable.
  • You’re a man or a woman with fertility problems linked to your pituitary gland (hormones).
  • You’re producing small numbers of sperm or you have sperm with an abnormal movement (low motility).
  • You’re a man and you have certain infections or inflammations.

What fertility drugs are there for women?

Clomifene citrate (Clomid)

Clomid is an effective treatment which stimulates your ovaries to produce more eggs. It’s often the first course of treatment for women with polycystic ovaries but it can also be used by women who have late or irregular periods.

There’s a risk with Clomid of developing too many follicles (the sacs that hold your eggs). If this happens you could have a multiple birth (twins, triplets or more) which carries serious health risks to both mother and babies. For this reason, we strongly recommend that you only take Clomid under the supervision of a fertility specialist. 

Find out more about multiple births on our Risks of Fertility Treatment page

Metformin

Metformin isn’t technically a fertility drug; it’s a drug used in the treatment of people with diabetes. However it can be used by some women with polycystic ovaries who aren’t ovulating properly because of abnormal insulin levels in the body.

Women with PCOS can develop insulin resistance, which means their body stops reacting to normal insulin levels. To compensate, the body will produce more insulin than it needs and this can lead to high androgen (male hormone) levels which affect ovulation. Metformin reduces insulin in the body to normal levels, allowing ovulation to return to normal.

Gonadotrophins

Gonadotrophins can be used by women with PCOS who haven’t gotten pregnant with Clomid and are still experiencing problems with ovulation. They’re hormones that you inject into the body to help stimulate egg production.

Women who take gonadotrophins can develop a side effect called ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS) which can, in rare cases, be fatal so it’s essential you’re aware of the symptoms of OHSS.

Find out more about OHSS on our Risks of Fertility Treatment page

Bromocriptine and Cabergoline

Bromocriptine and Cabergoline can be used by women who produce too much of the prolactin hormone, a condition called hyperprolactinemia. Prolactin is produced by the pituitary gland in the brain and too much of it can reduce levels of oestrogen in the body, making ovulation difficult. Bromocriptine and Cabergoline both increase levels of dopamine in the brain, which helps to reduce levels of prolactin production and return ovulation to normal.

Always seek professional advice before taking fertility drugs

What fertility drugs are there for men?

Gonadotrophins

Some men have a low sperm count because the pituitary gland in the brain isn’t producing enough gonadotrophins. Gonadotrophins stimulate the release of testosterone which support sperm production in the testicles.

Find out more about male hormones and fertility issues from the Pituitary Foundation

Antioxidants and vitamins

There is some evidence to suggest that certain antioxidants and vitamins including zinc, selenium, vitamin C and vitamin E may help to improve the fertility of men with a low sperm count or sperm that isn’t moving properly (low motility). However more research is needed before we can say they are proven to work.

Find out more about research into antioxidants and male fertility

Are there any side effects from taking fertility drugs?

There can be, although many people taking fertility drugs feel fine. Make sure you let your clinic know if you have any unexpected reactions, including: stomach pains or a bloated stomach, hot flushes, breathing difficulty, mood swings, heavy periods, breast tenderness, insomnia, increased urination, spots, headaches, weight gain, dizziness, and vaginal dryness.

If you take gonadotrophins you’re also at risk of OHSS, a severe and potentially life-threatening side effect.

Find out more about OHSS on our Risks of Fertility Treatment page

Can I take fertility drugs myself without having to go to a clinic?

Fertility drugs will only work if you’ve been successfully diagnosed and you’re taking the right medication for your diagnosis. Some of these medications also carry serious side effects. For these reasons, we always recommend being treated by a specialist from a licensed UK fertility clinic. Not only will they be able to prescribe you the right medication, they’ll also be able to move you onto alternative treatments at the appropriate time if medication isn’t successful.

Your GP should be able to refer you to a clinic or if you’d prefer to go private (pay for treatment) you can choose a fertility clinic on our website.

Can I get fertility drugs on the NHS?

In many cases, yes you should be able to get these medications as long as they’ve been prescribed to you by your GP. Talk to your GP for more information about whether you qualify for free treatment.

What are the next steps if fertility drugs don’t work?

It very much depends on your situation and the reason why the drugs weren’t successful (if your doctor is able to find a reason). Your treatment options could include, in vitro fertilisation (IVF), intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), intrauterine insemination (IUI) or surrogacy, either with or without donor sperm or eggs.

Using donated eggs, sperm or embryos in treatment

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Review date: 1 March 2019