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You may have heard about freezing eggs, but aren’t quite sure what it means or how it works. In the least scientific terms, egg freezing is a process where eggs are retrieved from your ovaries, cryopreserved (a kind of freezing that stores living cells at extremely cold temperatures), and stored for use later on. Freezing your eggs is often suggested for people who aren’t quite ready to start a family but know they want to someday, or for individuals with health issues that could impact fertility later on.

Choosing to freeze your eggs is a big decision — and it comes with a lot of questions. If you choose to retrieve and store eggs, helping you become pregnant later on, you may be wondering just how the process works and if it’s right for you.

Who’s a good candidate for egg freezing?

Women choose to freeze their eggs for a variety of personal reasons — there’s no right or wrong reason to freeze your eggs. Nearly every woman is a candidate for egg freezing, but common reasons for choosing to freeze eggs include:

  • You have cancer or another illness. Because many medical procedures and medications — such as radiation, chemo, or surgery — can impact fertility, freezing your eggs before undergoing treatment for a major illness can help you start a family later on. Retrieving and storing eggs can be used as a backup plan, giving you the option of having children even if your medical history has made it more difficult to conceive.
  •  You want to delay starting a family. Pursuing a career or personal achievements is a common reason why some women choose to freeze their eggs. It allows women to plan ahead for having children even if they don’t have a partner. Freezing eggs at a younger age can provide women with healthier eggs that haven’t aged.
  • You are unsure about freezing embryos. Undergoing IVF or fertility treatments is a big decision, and how you feel about the process may impact whether you choose to freeze eggs or embryos. Some women and couples feel uncomfortable about freezing embryos because of personal or religious beliefs. For this reason, freezing eggs is a strong alternative.

When should I freeze my eggs?

Choosing to freeze your eggs can happen at any age, but there are age ranges that produce the best results. During your 20s and early 30s is considered best, because at this age, eggs are a higher quality than eggs in your late 30s; in addition, freezing eggs during this time means there are often more eggs to retrieve. If you are thinking about freezing eggs, but unsure if the time is right, a fertility specialist can help. A battery of basic fertility tests can determine your unique health situation and how your reproductive system is aging. From there, a doctor can help you determine the best time to freeze your eggs.

How does egg freezing work? What is the process like?

The egg freezing process is similar to how it sounds — after eggs are retrieved from your ovaries, they are transferred to a laboratory where they are instantly chilled at -196 degrees Celsius using liquid nitrogen. From there, the eggs are monitored until you choose to use them.

While that sounds simple, there is some big prep work involved in the egg retrieval process. Like undergoing In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) treatment, a fertility specialist will first determine your specific reproductive goals and health. From there, you will be prescribed one to two weeks of birth control pills that bypass your natural menstrual cycle in preparation for retrieval.

Like IVF, you’ll need to undergo several rounds of hormone injections; in many cases, this is between nine and 10 days of hormones that help stimulate the follicles and ovaries to speed up the egg ripening process. After eggs have been deemed mature, you’ll be scheduled for the retrieval procedure.

At that time, a doctor will remove eggs from your ovaries by using a needle that is inserted with the help of an ultrasound. You’ll be sedated for this procedure, which only lasts about 15 to 20 minutes. Recovery time is often less than one hour, and while you’re recovering, your eggs will be sent into storage for use whenever you’re ready for a baby.

This entire process — from initial hormone injections to the freezing process — takes about three weeks, and is considered one egg retrieval cycle.

How many eggs should I freeze?

There’s no set number for how many eggs you should freeze, simply because each woman’s reproductive health and goals are different. In most cases, fertility specialists recommend freezing 10 eggs for each attempt at pregnancy. Based on prior success or special scenarios, your doctor may choose to harvest and freeze more eggs; in most cases, between 10 and 20 eggs can be harvested at one time.

What happens to eggs I don’t use or need?

If you freeze more eggs than you need, that’s ok. Some women conceive quickly through IVF and don’t need the remaining eggs. In other scenarios, women freeze eggs only to naturally conceive. Regardless of why you have remaining eggs, you have multiple options.

You can donate your eggs to a specific person, such as a family member or friend who may also be undergoing IVF treatment. Or, you can choose for remaining eggs to be destroyed. In some cases, you can donate to an egg donor bank – but this requires some foresight. Before freezing your eggs, you’ll need to determine if you may want to donate any remaining eggs later on. That’s because the FDA requires all egg donors to be screened for a variety of health concerns, such as infectious diseases, genetic abnormalities, and other issues. This additional screening allows your eggs to be considered safe for donation, but it could come with some additional out-of-pocket costs for you. Speaking with your fertility specialist is the best way to determine how many eggs you’ll need to freeze, and will help you make a plan for any remaining eggs in the future.

How long can my eggs stay frozen? How viable are frozen eggs?

There’s no hard and fast time limit for how long your eggs can remain frozen. In fact, healthy babies have been born from eggs stored for as long as 10 years. But, you should know that not all frozen eggs will be viable, regardless how long you store them for. According to the University of Southern California Fertility department, research shows that egg thaw rates (the percentage of eggs that are viable after being frozen and then thawed) are about 75% in women below the age of 38. This means that a woman who stores 10 eggs should expect 7 to survive the freezing and thawing process, though in most cases, only 75% (three to four) of those remaining eggs will successfully fertilize and become viable embryos.

How much does it cost to freeze my eggs?

Like many fertility treatments, choosing to freeze your eggs can come with a price tag. Similar to IVF, freezing your eggs can cost an average of $10,000 per cycle. This cost usually includes all the services related to the egg retrieval and initial freezing — including pre-testing, hormones and medications, and the retrieval procedure — but doesn’t necessarily cover the annual cost of storing your eggs, which can vary based on where you live and where you choose to keep your eggs. You should also know that you’ll pay to thaw your eggs, and for how you choose to use them later on, whether that be through IVF or another fertility treatment.