Facts About Sperm Health and Lifespan

Sperm Health

When you’re trying to get pregnant, many women start by learning as much as they can about their cycle. To be sure, knowing when you ovulate is an important part of determining your most fertile days to try to conceive. It takes two to make a baby, though, so it’s smart to understand how your partner’s sperm work.

Healthy Sperm Development Takes Planning

Ovaries develop egg cells in utero, so girls are born with all the eggs they’ll ever have, although it will take many years before those eggs mature.

Sperm, on the other hand, develops throughout the lifetime. Your partner’s testes produce millions of sperm cells daily. These fresh sperm take about 2.5-3 months to mature to the point where they can fertilize an egg. The sperm in your partner’s ejaculate formed around 75-90 days ago, so healthy habits now will affect sperm quality in months to come.

Your partner can set sperm up for their healthiest development by giving them a good environment to mature in:

  • Quit smoking and other drugs
  • Minimize or eliminate alcohol use
  • Eat a nutrient-rich diet (green, leafy vegetables, zinc-rich foods like oysters and beef, and selenium-rich eggs and shrimp are good choices)
  • Maintain a healthy weight

Sperm Lifespan Depends on Location

Once exposed to the air, sperm die quickly. This isn’t because oxygen is toxic to sperm, but because they need moisture and a certain pH balance to thrive. If sperm dry out or spend too long in a hostile pH environment, they die.

Inside your body, though, sperm live much longer. The acidic pH of the vagina itself isn’t actually that sperm-friendly, but seminal fluid is alkaline, which helps balance out to give sperm the environment they need. On your most fertile days, the clear, stretchy cervical mucus you produce also more closely matches sperm’s ideal environment.

Generally, sperm can live for about 2-5 days inside your body, depending on various factors. This means the day you conceive, in terms of a viable sperm penetrating the egg, can be several days later than the day you had sex.

Sperm Don’t Like Heat

Sperm are fairly finicky about temperature. Their optimal temperature is a few degrees cooler than the rest of the body. That’s why they hang out (literally) in the testes.

If your partner overheats the scrotum, there’s a chance the sperm could suffer. If you’re trying to conceive, tell your partner to stay out of hot tubs or overly mirror-fogging showers. Keep the laptop on another surface so the machinery doesn’t overheat scrotal territory. Even switching from briefs, which hug the testes up against the body, to looser and more breathable underwear can make a difference to sperm.

It’s Not Just a Numbers Game

When couples take longer to conceive, they may start to worry about sperm count. In fact, doctors evaluate a few different aspects of a sperm sample to make sure swimmers are healthy:

  1. Sperm Count: Despite millions of sperm starting the journey with each ejaculation, only a few hundred will survive long enough to get close to the egg. Doctors look for a minimum of around 15-20 million sperm per milliliter of semen, or a grand total of at least about 40 million.
  2. Motility: How well sperm swim defines how much of a chance they have to make it to the egg. Generally, anything above about 40% of sperm being motile is considered to be a good sign.
  3. Morphology: This is one of the least understood aspects of sperm quality. You may not realize that the majority of your partner’s sperm are likely less than perfectly formed. In fact, up to 96% abnormal sperm is considered within normal bounds! Doctors disagree about how much low morphology impacts fertility. If your partner’s semen analysis shows less than 4% well-formed sperm, your doctor will talk to you about interventions they think could help, or explain why they think you shouldn’t worry.
Jessica Sillers
Jessica Sillers is a parenting and finance writer whose work has been featured in Pregnancy & Newborn, Headspace, and more. As a new mom herself, she’s passionate about helping other parents find the community and support they need. When she’s not writing, she loves spending time with her family, reading, and hiking.

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