Antibiotics and Fecundability Among Female Pregnancy Planners

A Prospective Cohort Study

Holly Michelle Crowe; Amelia Kent Wesselink; Lauren Anne Wise; Tanran R. Wang; Charles Robert Horsburgh Jr.; Ellen Margrethe Mikkelsen; Elizabeth Elliott Hatch


Hum Reprod. 2021;36(10):2761-2768. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Study Question: To what extent is female preconception antibiotic use associated with fecundability?

Summary Answer: Preconception antibiotic use overall was not appreciably associated with fecundability.

What is Known Already: Antibiotics are commonly used by women and are generally thought to be safe for use during pregnancy. However, little is known about possible effects of antibiotic use on fecundability, the per-cycle probability of conception. Previous research on this question has been limited to occupational rather than therapeutic exposure.

Study Design, Size, Duration: We analyzed data from an Internet-based preconception cohort study of 9524 female pregnancy planners aged 21–45 years residing in the USA and Canada who had been attempting to conceive for six or fewer cycles at study entry. Participants enrolled between June 2013 and September 2020 and completed baseline and bimonthly follow-up questionnaires for up to 12 months or until a reported pregnancy, whichever came first. The questions pertaining to antibiotic type and indication were added to the PRESTO questionnaires in March 2016.

Participants/Materials, Setting, Methods: We assessed antibiotic use in the previous 4 weeks at baseline and on each follow-up questionnaire. Participants provided the name of the specific antibiotic and the indication for use. Antibiotics were classified based on active ingredient (penicillins, macrolides, nitrofurantoin, nitroimidazole, cephalosporins, sulfonamides, quinolones, tetracyclines, lincosamides), and indications were classified by type of infection (respiratory, urinary tract, skin, vaginal, pelvic, and surgical). Participants reported pregnancy status on follow-up questionnaires. We used proportional probabilities regression to estimate fecundability ratios (FR), the per-cycle probability of conception comparing exposed with unexposed individuals, and 95% confidence intervals (CI), adjusting for sociodemographics, lifestyle factors, and reproductive history.

Main Results and the Role of Chance: Overall, women who used antibiotics in the past 4 weeks at baseline had similar fecundability to those who had not used antibiotics (FR: 0.98, 95% CI: 0.89–1.07). Sulfonamides and lincosamides were associated with slightly increased fecundability (FR: 1.39, 95% CI: 0.90–2.15, and FR: 1.58 95% CI: 0.96–2.60, respectively), while macrolides were associated with slightly reduced fecundability (FR: 0.70, 95% CI: 0.47–1.04). Analyses of the indication for antibiotic use suggest that there is likely some confounding by indication.

Limitations, Reasons for Caution: Findings were imprecise for some antibiotic classes and indications for use owing to small numbers of antibiotic users in these categories. There are likely heterogeneous effects of different combinations of indications and treatments, which may be obscured in the overall null results, but cannot be further elucidated in this analysis.

Wider Implications of the Findings: There is little evidence that use of most antibiotics is associated with reduced fecundability. Antibiotics and the infections they treat are likely associated with fecundability through differing mechanisms, resulting in their association with increased fecundability in some circumstances and decreased fecundability in others.

Study Funding/Competing Interest(S): This study was supported through funds provided by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health (R01-HD086742, R21-HD072326). L.A.W. has received in-kind donations from Swiss Precision Diagnostics, Sandstone Diagnostics, Fertility Friend, and Kindara for primary data collection in PRESTO. The other authors have no conflicts of interest to disclose.

Trial Registration Number: N/A.


Antibiotic use among women of reproductive age is common, particularly in the USA. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 916 oral antibiotic prescriptions per 1000 women in 2017, compared to 604 prescriptions per 1000 men (CDC, 2018). Most classes of antibiotics are generally deemed safe for use during pregnancy, but some registry studies have found an association between use of trimethoprim or clarithromycin and increased miscarriage risk (Andersen et al., 2013a,b; Muanda et al., 2018). While data are sparse on the association between antibiotics and time to pregnancy, prolonged time to pregnancy may actually reflect subclinical pregnancy loss, suggesting that these outcomes may have common etiologies, including exposures occurring prior to implantation (Gray and Becker, 2000). To date, the only study of antibiotic use and time to pregnancy in females showed an increase in time to pregnancy among Danish pharmacy assistants exposed to any class of antibiotics, although this exposure was from handling, packaging, and bottling the medication rather than ingesting it for treatment (Schaumburg and Olsen, 1989).

In certain circumstances, antibiotics may be beneficial for female fertility, as they treat conditions related to subfertility, such as bacterial vaginosis and pelvic inflammatory disease (Casari et al., 2010; Emanuele Levi-Setti, 2016). However, prolonged antibiotic use or use for other indications may cause disruptions in the reproductive tract microbiome (Schaumburg and Olsen, 1989; Emanuele Levi-Setti, 2016). Such bacterial imbalances could contribute to increased genital tract acidity, which may impair sperm motility (Schaumburg and Olsen, 1989; Emanuele Levi-Setti, 2016). Additionally, some antibiotics have anti-inflammatory effects, which could disrupt the inflammatory process of implantation (Ng et al., 2002). In the present work, we examined the association between preconception use of antibiotics and fecundability, the per-cycle probability of conception, in a large preconception cohort study of North American pregnancy planners.