Outside of the body, sperm may die quickly when they’re exposed to the air. The length of time they stay alive has a lot to do with environmental factors and how fast they dry up.
If you’re having a procedure like intrauterine insemination (IUI) or in vitro fertilization (IVF), washed sperm can last in an incubator for up to 72 hours. Frozen sperm may last indefinitely, provided it’s left in a properly controlled environment.
Sperm that’s been ejaculated into a woman can live inside the uterus for up to five days. That’s why it’s possible to get pregnant if you have unprotected sex while menstruating. If you ovulate shortly after you finish your period, the sperm may still be alive and can fertilize the egg.
Keep reading to learn more about the lifespan of sperm and sperm motility, plus find out which urban legends about sperm and pregnancy are true and which are false.
Yes. You can get pregnant if the sperm is near the vagina and it has not dried. You may have heard that oxygen kills sperm. This isn’t true. Sperm can move until it’s dried. For example, you may think you aren’t at risk for pregnancy if you have unprotected anal sex. Fresh sperm might leak and stay near the vaginal opening. If it stays moist, it could make its way up the vagina and through the cervix into the uterus to fertilize the egg.
While this scenario is possible, it isn’t likely to happen.
It’s highly unlikely that pregnancy would occur if sperm had to travel through water into a woman’s body. In the hot tub scenario, the temperature of the water or chemicals would kill the sperm in seconds. In a bathtub filled with plain warm water, the sperm may live up to a few minutes. Still, it would need to quickly enter the vagina after traveling through all that water. Then it would need to go through the cervix and then on into the uterus.
Getting pregnant in this case is highly unlikely to impossible.
Spermicides are a type of birth control you can use with or without condoms. They come in many different forms, including cream, gel, foam, and suppository. Spermicides do not kill sperm. Instead, they stop the semen from moving, which decreases sperm motility. The woman applies it near her cervix so the sperm cannot enter into the uterus.
When you use spermicide along with condoms or another barrier method, it is 90 to 97 percent effective. Without condoms, spermicide is not considered an effective form of birth control since it fails about 28 percent of the time to prevent pregnancy.
Once ejaculation occurs during intercourse, the sperm travels from the vagina through the cervix and into the uterus. From there, contractions of your uterus help pull the sperm toward your fallopian tubes. The first of the sperm may enter your tubes in just minutes. The closer you are to ovulation, the easier the journey becomes for the sperm. In order for pregnancy to occur, your cervical mucus must be favorable. Mucus that’s egg-white in consistency is best. If your cervical mucus is thick or dry, the journey is much more difficult.
Many couples worry about sperm count when trying to conceive, but that’s only part of the male fertility equation. The term “sperm motility” refers to the ability for the sperm to swim the right way. Motility may matter as much as sperm count when it comes to getting pregnant. If the sperm cannot make the journey to the egg, pregnancy will not occur.
Several things may impact a man’s sperm motility, including:
- stress levels
- excessive heat
- certain medications
- poor diet
If motility is a factor in infertility, there are several options couples may explore. IUI directly places sperm inside the woman’s uterus so it doesn’t need to swim from the vagina through the cervix. With IVF, sperm is introduced to the egg for fertilization in a lab before being placed back inside the woman’s uterus. Sometimes doctors do what is called an intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), where the sperm is injected into the egg as part of the IVF procedure.
You may use fresh or frozen sperm with both IUI and IVF. You may choose to use frozen sperm for these procedures for a number of reasons, including using donor sperm and preserving fertility for a male who has cancer. According to the Sperm Bank of California, thawing sperm is as easy as waiting 30 minutes for it to reach room temperature. From there, the sperm should be warmed to body temperature either in your hand or under your arm. Once sperm is thawed, it cannot be refrozen.
While frozen sperm can last a very long time, some believe its integrity may be compromised after thawing. Studies show, though, that frozen sperm may be just as effective as fresh sperm at achieving pregnancy, at least when using IVF and ICSI.
How long sperm lives depends on the conditions it is exposed to. Many of the myths you’ve heard about getting pregnant in hot tubs or from surfaces do not hold up. That said, sperm does live longer when it’s kept moist. It’s possible, but unlikely, to get pregnant even if sperm is ejaculated near the vaginal opening. If it’s ejaculated inside the vagina, it may only take a few minutes to travel to the egg.
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