It’s a common question among the trying-to-avoid-having-a-baby set: Can you get pregnant from precum? Also, what is precum? Is it like a semen warning shot or does it contain sperm just like semen does? Since sex ed class most likely glossed over this curiosity, we dug through the research and spoke to sexual health experts to get you the answers.
What is precum, exactly?
Precum is a clear, sticky fluid released before ejaculation. As its name makes pretty obvious, precum (or pre-ejaculate) is a fluid that comes out of the penis before semen. It’s thought to originate from organs known as Cowper’s glands (also called bulbourethral glands) and the glands of Littre (urethral glands that secrete mucus). These glands are nestled close to the urethra (the tube through which sperm and urine travel on their way out into the world). When someone with a penis is sexually excited, these glands churn out precum, which is a mix of components such as proteins, enzymes, and mucus.
“Pre-ejaculate primes the urethra for sperm to come through,” Amin Herati, M.D., a urologist at John’s Hopkins University, tells SELF.
Basically, precum serves an important function if you are trying to get pregnant. See, when urine passes through the urethra, it creates an acidic environment, which isn’t ideal for sperm, Dr. Herati explains. All that acidity can get in the way of sperm maintaining the right pH level for optimal function. So, precum renders the urethra less acidic and makes the path for sperm from the penis to egg safer and potentially more successful. Another theory is that it helps to make the acidic nature of the vagina more hospitable to sperm.
In sum, you can think of precum like the appetizer to semen’s entree, the comedy show opener who gets a crowd lubed up for the headliner, the soapy water you pour onto a slip and slide—whatever tickles your fancy.
So, wait, is there sperm in precum?
Nope, sperm doesn’t live in pre-ejaculate itself. But that doesn’t mean that there may not be some sperm released with precum. Let us explain: Sperm is found in semen, which is estimated to contain 200 to 300 million sperm per ejaculation. Clearly, semen is your biggest issue when it comes to avoiding pregnancy. With that said, precum isn’t completely risk-free.
If all the seminal stars align, precum can theoretically carry live sperm out of the urethra and into your body. If your partner ejaculated sometime leading up to sex with you (and especially if they haven’t urinated since), any live sperm in there can get swept up in precum. (Some experts believe it’s even possible for live sperm to stick around in the urethra post-pee.)
“Typically, it’s not enough for pregnancy,” Dr. Herati says. “The likelihood of pregnancy [from pre-ejaculate] is very low, but it’s never zero.”
There’s not a ton of research in this area (shocker), but the small scientific investigations that do exist generally indicate that precum can potentially harbor live sperm. For instance, a 2013 study in Human Fertility examined 40 samples of precum and semen from 27 participants, finding that 41 percent of the participants produced precum samples that contained live sperm.
In general, precum doesn’t seem to transport top-notch sperm (no offense to the little wrigglers that wind up in this fluid). In that Human Fertility study, only 37 percent of the sperm-containing precum samples had a fair amount of motile sperm, as in, ones that could make the journey toward an egg. (Remember, pre-ejaculate doesn’t naturally contain semen on its own, so this means the precum samples containing sperm picked it up from the urethra on the way out of the body.)
The study authors also note that all but one of the precum samples had fewer than 23 million sperm. That sounds like a ton of the stuff, but it’s not. The researchers point to a 2010 World Health Organization study of 1,953 people with penises who had gotten their partners pregnant within a year of trying to conceive. Less than 2.5 percent of those people had fewer than 23 million sperm in their ejaculatory fluid.
With that said, the Human Fertility study authors also note that they only asked participants to collect a drop of their precum, not all of it. It’s possible that this lowered the overall number of sperm found in their samples.
If you’re relying on the pull-out method, precum isn’t really the issue—it’s human error.
The question of sperm in precum usually comes up in reference to the pull-out method, also known as the withdrawal method (and coitus interruptus—sounds like a dinosaur, but OK). This DIY birth control method relies on the person with the penis yanking themselves out of the person with the vagina right before ejaculation in order to minimize the risk of pregnancy.
As you can probably guess, this is not the most effective option for preventing pregnancy—and it’s really no way to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs), since many STIs can be spread through skin-to-skin contact. But precum probably isn’t to blame for the unreliability of the pull-out method.
Research shows that the pull-out method has a typical use failure rate of 22 percent, meaning that 22 out of 100 people with vaginas who use the pull-out method inconsistently or incorrectly will get pregnant in a year. The perfect use failure rate (which assumes you’re pulling out with plenty of time to spare every single time) is 4 percent, which isn’t too shabby. The problem is, “perfect use” is pretty hard to define when we’re talking about pulling out a penis right before ejaculation. While it’s possible that precum can play a role in pregnancies occurring with pull-out method, it’s hard to know how big a role it plays.
It’s pretty impossible to determine if a pregnancy is the result of precum or the result of actual ejaculate getting into a vagina. Neither scenario changes anything about the trajectory of conception or the pregnancy itself, and there aren’t any medical tests that can suss out whether or not someone got pregnant because precum picked up sperm or because a bit of ejaculate got into the vagina before the person with the penis pulled out.
There aren't any hard numbers as to how often precum carries sperm from the urethra into the vagina and causes a pregnancy, but it seems to be quite rare. This makes sense when you think about it. To help put it into perspective, consider couples in their 20s and 30s who are actively trying to conceive by allowing full ejaculation into the vagina multiple times.
People in this group have around a 25 to 30 percent chance of getting pregnant during each menstrual cycle, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Again, that’s people who are fully trying to get pregnant! This is because getting pregnant requires a specific and complex chain of events to happen successfully. The person with the vagina must have released an egg for potential fertilization (or be on the edge of doing so), that egg must be viable enough for conception, it must meet viable enough sperm, and that fertilized egg then needs to latch onto the uterine lining. The amount of biological magic involved is kind of mind-blowing. It’s also typically pretty hard for a dribble of precum to pull off.
So, the issue with the withdrawal method isn’t that precum inherently contains a bunch of sperm that can get you pregnant. It’s that it can be really hard to use the pull-out method perfectly instead of typically. This means that if you’re worried about pregnancy, the pull-out method may not be for you. External condoms, which respectively have a typical and perfect use failure rate of 18 and 2 percent, might be a better option.
If you’re using an external condom with a person who has a penis, they should put on the condom before any kind of fluid can escape, Kelley T. Saunders, M.D., an ob/gyn with Banner University Medicine Women's Institute, tells SELF. That means the moment they have an erection, according to the CDC. If you’re using an internal condom (with typical and perfect use failure rates of 21 and 5 percent, respectively), it should be inside of you before any penetration with a penis occurs—even the non-ejaculatory type.
But if you really want to rely on the withdrawal method for certain reasons, like that it’s completely free, you need to keep some key things in mind for it to work as well as possible. You and your partner absolutely need to be on the same page about when to pull out every single time. Proper use of the pull-out method requires a strong foundation of trust: You should be fully confident that you both will follow the pull-out guidelines you agree upon each time you have sex. Even then, you need to be comfortable with the risk involved, which could be as little as the 4 percent failure rate with perfect use or as high as the 22 percent failure rate with typical use. (Remember that it’s called “typical” use for a reason: Perfect use is harder to achieve.)
Beyond that, if you’re relying on the pull-out method, you may want to consider discussing the possibility of using emergency contraception in the times where you know you messed up (like if your partner didn’t pull out before ejaculating). Be sure to talk about the fact that emergency contraception is more expensive than just using condoms and other forms of birth control anyway (depending on your insurance coverage, you can get many forms of contraception for free). Depending on your circumstances, this discussion may help you realize if a different form of birth control makes more sense for you.
Also, skipping condoms can increase your risk of STIs for various reasons.
If you’re on a form of birth control like the pill or an IUD, you might have penetrative sex without condoms, then have your partner pull out before ejaculation as an “extra” safety step against pregnancy. While there’s nothing wrong with this, you should know that the effectiveness of birth control methods is not cumulative—meaning that an IUD, which is more than 99 percent effective at preventing pregnancy, will have that same level of effectiveness whether you also add on the pull-out method or not.
If you two have both been tested and know you aren’t having sex (especially unprotected sex) with other people, then you’ve done your due diligence to avoid sexually transmitted infections. Otherwise, you should take into account that having sex without barrier methods can definitely spread STIs.
That’s partly due to the precum itself. “Because the fluid has biologic cells in it, it can transmit STIs,” Dr. Herati says. Even if your partner doesn’t produce noticeable precum, if they ejaculate before pulling out, their semen can transmit STIs instead. There’s also the fact that STIs like gonorrhea and chlamydia often create a genital discharge that can pass the infection, Dr. Saunders says: “STI risk is there whether ejaculation [or pre-ejaculation] occurs or not.”
Another element to consider: Some STIs are spread through skin-to-skin contact, and while barrier methods don’t fully protect against these STIs like HPV and herpes, they do help reduce how much of your skin is touching. Foregoing condoms means neglecting that added protection.
The takeaway: Precum is pretty interesting and serves a fascinating purpose. And while precum probably won’t get you pregnant, you could still be at risk for pregnancy and STIs if you’re relying on pulling out before ejaculation. If that’s a scary thought, talk to your doctor about your situation and see if there’s another method of birth control that could fit your lifestyle.