In mathematics, an irreducible polynomial is, roughly speaking, a polynomial that cannot be factored into the product of two non-constant polynomials. The property of irreducibility depends on the nature of the coefficients that are accepted for the possible factors, that is, the field to which the coefficients of the polynomial and its possible factors are supposed to belong. For example, the polynomial x2 − 2 is a polynomial with integer coefficients, but, as every integer is also a real number, it is also a polynomial with real coefficients. It is irreducible if it is considered as a polynomial with integer coefficients, but it factors as if it is considered as a polynomial with real coefficients. One says that the polynomial x2 − 2 is irreducible over the integers but not over the reals.
Polynomial irreducibility can be considered for polynomials with coefficients in an integral domain, and there are two common definitions. Most often, a polynomial over an integral domain R is said to be irreducible if it is not the product of two polynomials that have their coefficients in R, and are not unit in R. Equivalently, for this definition, an irreducible polynomial is an irreducible element in the rings of polynomials over R. If R is a field, the two definitions of irreducibility are equivalent. For the second definition, a polynomial is irreducible if it cannot be factored into polynomials with coefficients in the same domain that have both a positive degree. Equivalently, a polynomial is irreducible if it is irreducible over the field of fractions of the integral domain. For example, the polynomial is irreducible for the second definition, and not for the first one. On the other hand, is irreducible in for the two definitions, while it is reducible in
A polynomial that is irreducible over any field containing the coefficients is absolutely irreducible. By the fundamental theorem of algebra, a univariate polynomial is absolutely irreducible if and only if its degree is one. On the other hand, with several indeterminates, there are absolutely irreducible polynomials of any degree, such as for any positive integer n.
It is helpful to compare irreducible polynomials to prime numbers: prime numbers (together with the corresponding negative numbers of equal magnitude) are the irreducible integers. They exhibit many of the general properties of the concept of "irreducibility" that equally apply to irreducible polynomials, such as the essentially unique factorization into prime or irreducible factors. When the coefficient ring is a field or other unique factorization domain, an irreducible polynomial is also called a prime polynomial, because it generates a prime ideal.