The ability to freeze human eggs has been a major breakthrough in reproductive technology. It has provided egg freezers with the option to delay childbearing, preserve their fertility in the face of medical conditions or treatments, and allow them to focus on their careers or personal goals without feeling the pressure of the "biological clock." However, many people wonder how long they can actually keep their frozen eggs in storage. In this article, we'll explore this question in more detail.
First off, what even is egg freezing?
Egg freezing, also known as oocyte cryopreservation, is a process where a patient’s eggs are extracted from the ovaries, frozen, and stored for later use. This procedure is typically done for those who want to preserve their fertility but are not yet ready to have children. It may also be recommended for patients who are facing medical treatments that could affect their fertility, such as chemotherapy.
The process of egg freezing typically involves hormone treatments to stimulate the ovaries to produce multiple eggs in one cycle. Once the eggs are mature, they are retrieved using a needle that is inserted through the vaginal wall under ultrasound guidance. The eggs are then frozen and stored in a special solution until they are ready to be used.
When you’re ready to use the frozen eggs, they are thawed and fertilized with sperm in a laboratory using a technique called ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection). The resulting embryos are then implanted into the uterus (either yours, your partner’s, or the uterus of a gestational carrier) in the hopes of achieving a successful pregnancy.
What is vitrification?
Vitrification is a newer and more effective method of freezing eggs that has largely replaced older methods such as slow freezing. With vitrification, eggs are quickly frozen using a high concentration of cryoprotectants and then plunged into liquid nitrogen for storage. This process creates a glass-like state that preserves the eggs in a nearly perfect condition. In fact, vitrification ensures a very high rate of survival of the eggs, typically 95% or above.
Compared to slow freezing, which can damage the eggs and reduce their viability, vitrification has a higher success rate of producing healthy embryos for later use. It has become the preferred method of egg freezing for most fertility clinics and has allowed more patients to successfully preserve their fertility.
If you have any doubts about your clinic, you can ask them what type of method they use for egg freezing. It's important to do your research and choose a reputable fertility clinic with experience in vitrification if you're considering egg freezing.
So, how long can I keep my eggs in storage?
The length of time that frozen human eggs can be stored depends on several factors, including the quality of the eggs, the storage method used, and the regulations of the country or state where the eggs are being stored.
Scientifically, if you work with a good clinic in the United States using vitrification, you can keep them stored indefinitely. However, some countries, such as the United Kingdom have a cap on the number of years you can store eggs (for the UK, it’s now 55 years). Currently there is no limit in the United States.
Typically, I see patients that store their eggs for two to five years. With newer freezing methods, such as vitrification (described above), the chances of damage during storage are usually quite low.
How much will it cost to store my eggs?
The cost of storing frozen eggs varies based on the location of the storage facility, the amount of time you pay for (you can often get discounts for paying for more years upfront), and the transportation fees between the storage facility and your clinic. Egg storage is usually an out-of-pocket expense, ranging from $500 to $1,500 per year.
If you become a Split member at Cofertility, you can freeze your eggs for free when you donate half of the eggs retrieved to a family that can’t otherwise conceive. In this program, the cost of egg storage is completely covered for up to 10 years.
When should I plan on freezing my eggs?
The ideal time to freeze your eggs depends on a lot of things… including your age now, your overall health, and your personal goals.
Generally, I advise patients to consider freezing their eggs before the age of 35. This is because fertility declines as you get older, as the quality and quantity of eggs decrease. By freezing your eggs at a younger age, you may be able to preserve a greater number of healthy eggs for future use. It’s a bigger bang for your buck.
However, every situation is unique, and there may be individual factors that influence your decision to freeze eggs at an earlier or later age. For example, if you have a medical condition or are undergoing a treatment that may affect your fertility, your doctor may recommend freezing your eggs earlier than age 35.
It's also important to consider your personal goals and timeline for starting a family. If you're not yet ready to have children but know that you want to in the future, freezing your eggs at an earlier age may give you more flexibility and options down the road.
Read more in When Should I Freeze My Eggs?
What happens if I don’t need the eggs down the line?
One study of egg freezing patients at UCSF found that 89% believed they would be glad they froze their eggs, even if they never used them to conceive a child. If you don't end up needing your frozen eggs down the line, there are a few options for what to do with them.
- Keep them in storage. Most storage facilities offer long-term storage options, allowing you to keep your eggs frozen for many years if necessary. This may be a good option if you're not yet ready to use the eggs but want to keep them as a backup plan.
- Donate the eggs to someone else who may need them. Egg donation is a process of donating eggs to another person or couple who needs them, such as LGBTQ+ families or those suffering from infertility. This can be a wonderful gift for those who may not be able to have a child otherwise.
- Dispose of them. If you decide that you no longer need your frozen eggs and don't want to continue storing them or donate them, simply request that they are disposed of by the clinic or storage facility.
- Donate to science. Many research studies rely on donated eggs to investigate new techniques and treatments for infertility. Ask your clinic if this is an option.
What happens to my frozen eggs if I die?
This is something you will determine with the clinic before your egg retrieval procedure as part of your egg freezing agreement. If you have frozen eggs and pass away, the fate of your eggs will depend on this agreement. The options are generally that they are designated a beneficiary (such as your partner if you are married at the time), or discarded.
If for some reason you didn’t state your preference up front, your eggs will likely become part of your estate and subject to the same rules and regulations as other assets you may leave behind.
Summing it up
Newer egg freezing technology allows human eggs to be frozen indefinitely, although some countries like the UK have a limit of 55 years. Vitrification preserves the eggs in a nearly perfect condition, with a very high rate of survival of 95% or above.
While you can technically store eggs for your entire lifetime, it may get expensive. At some point, you may decide that you don’t want to use those eggs for yourself and instead donate them to another family, donate them to science, or have them discarded. Ultimately, the decision of how long to store your frozen eggs should be based on your personal goals and circumstances.