Fertility drugs are medications that are used to influence ovulation. Some fertility drugs are meant to strength or trigger ovulation, while others suppress ovulation. (I know -- sounds backwards. I'll explain more below.) Fertility drugs can also be used in men to treat male factor infertility, but this is less common.
Generally, fertility drugs are used to treat problems with ovulation or recurrent miscarriage. However, this is not always the case. For example, sometimes the woman does not have ovulatory problems, but the man's fertility issues require IVF treatment. In this case, fertility drugs may be used to increase the number of eggs the woman produces, in order to retrieve the eggs for IVF treatment.
Commonly Prescribed Fertility Drugs
The most commonly prescribed fertility drugs include:
Clomid, Serophene - You've probably heard of Clomid before. Clomid, or clomiphene citrate, is often the first drug tried when treating ovulatory dysfunction. The risks of side effects, like multiple pregnancy and ovulation hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), are less with Clomid, when compared to gonadotropins (FSH, hCG, and hMG).
Femera - Femera, or letrozole, isn't actually meant to be a fertility drug, but is intended to treat postmenopausal women with breast cancer. Still, Femera has been shown to be as effective as Clomid when inducing ovulation.
The drug is being used with less frequency, however, because studies show an increase in birth defects when taken during pregnancy. Doctors who use Femera for ovulation induction argue that the drug isn't taken during pregnancy when used during fertility treatments. It's taken before pregnancy has occurred. Therefore, they say it shouldn't be considered risky to the baby's health.
Follistim, Gonal-F - Follistim and Gonal-F are fertility drugs which mimic the hormone FSH in your body. They are created in a lab using recombinant DNA technology. As you may recall, FSH is the hormone which tells the oocytes in your ovaries to grow and mature. These drugs are taken via injection, which you do yourself, and may be used during IVF or IUI treatment, or with timed sexual intercourse at home.
Bravelle, Fertinex - These hormonal fertility drugs are also FSH, except instead of being artificially created in the lab, the hormone is extracted and purified from the urine of post-menopausal women. These drugs are considered less potent than FSH created using recombinant DNA technology, but they are less expensive. They are taken via injection, usually at home.
Ovidrel, Novarel, Pregnyl - These drugs are meant to mimic the hormone LH in the body. You might remember LH is the hormone that triggers ovulation. These drugs are made of hCG, which is extracted from the urine of pregnant women. The hormone hCG is similar to LH in the body. These fertility drugs are injectables, and they are often used after FSH treatment, as well as during IVF or IUI treatment.
Antagon, Cetrotide - These fertility drugs are GnRH antagonists. This means that they work against the hormones LH and FSH in the body, suppressing ovulation. This seems backwards, but these drugs are often used during IVF treatment, to prevent the eggs being ovulated and "lost" inside the body before they can be retrieved.
They may also be used during IUI treatment, or if a couple will not be able to have sex during the fertile window (an ill-timed business trip, for example). Also, they may be used to reduce the risk of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, if estrogen levels are too high.
Lupron, Synarel, Zoladex - These fertility drugs are what are known as GnRH agonists, or gonadotropin releasing hormone agonists. They cause an initial surge in FSH and LH production, but then cause the body to stop producing FSH and LH, preventing ovulation and limiting the amount of estrogen. These drugs are usually used during IVF treatment, allowing the doctor to control ovulation with other fertility drugs (like the ones mentioned above).
Pergonal, Humegon, Repronex, Menopur - These fertility drugs are combined LH and FSH, also known as human menopausal gonadotropins (hMG). They are not used frequently, but may be used in some special cases. They are injectables.
Risks of Fertility Drugs
As with the use of any drug, risks come with fertility drugs. One risk you're no doubt familiar with is the risk of a multiple pregnancy. Multiples, either twins, triplets, or higher-order, can occur when using fertility drugs.
Another potential side effect of fertility drug use is ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, or OHSS. OHSS happens when the ovaries are overly stimulated, becoming dangerously large and filled with too much fluid. This fluid, which is released with ovulation, can lead to serious complications. OHSS is rarely life threatening, but it can be.
Learn more about fertility drugs, as well as ways to possibly lower the chances of complications:
- What Are The Potential Risks of Fertility Drugs?
- Should I Purposely Try To Get Pregnant With Twins Or Triplets?
- Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome Symptoms and Treatment
Medications for Inducing Ovulation: A Guide for Patients. American Society of Reproductive Medicine. Accessed August 20, 2008. http://asrm.org/uploadedFiles/ASRM_Content/Resources/Patient_Resources/Fact_Sheets_and_Info_Booklets/ovulation_drugs.pdf
Ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome. Medical Encyclopedia, MedlinePlus. Accessed August 20, 2008. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/007294.htm
Greene, Robert A. and Tarken, Laurie. (2008). Perfect Hormone Balance For Fertility. United States of America: Three Rivers Press.