Is pregnancy possible?

Before men climax, they release a fluid known as pre-ejaculation, or pre-cum. Pre-cum comes out right before semen, which has live sperm that can lead to pregnancy. Many people believe that pre-cum doesn’t include sperm, so there’s no risk of unintended pregnancy. But that’s not true.

There’s a lot of misinformation out there about this topic, but the short answer is: Yes, it’s possible to get pregnant from pre-cum. Read on to learn how and why.

But I thought pre-cum doesn’t have sperm?

You’re right: Pre-cum doesn’t actually contain any sperm. But it’s possible for sperm to leak into pre-cum.

Pre-cum is a lubricant produced by a gland in the penis. It’s released before ejaculation. Semen may linger in the urethra after ejaculation and mix with pre-cum while it’s on its way out.

In fact, a 2016 study found mobile sperm present in the pre-cum of nearly 17 percent of its male participants. Another study, published in 2011, found mobile sperm in 37 percent of pre-cum samples given by 27 men.

Peeing before you have sex may help flush out any leftover semen, reducing the chance sperm will appear in your pre-cum.

When does pre-cum occur?

Pre-cum isn’t something you can control. The fluid release is an involuntary bodily function that happens right before ejaculation. This is why the withdrawal method doesn’t work as well at preventing pregnancy as other birth control options, such as pills or condoms.

Even if you pull out right before you climax, pre-cum is still likely to enter your partner’s vagina. And research shows that can lead to unintended pregnancy. One 2008 study estimates that 18 percent of couples who use the withdrawal method will become pregnant in a year. According to a 2013 National Health Statistics Report, about 60 percent of women in the United States report using this birth control option.

Overall, the withdrawal method is about 73 percent effective at preventing pregnancy, according to the Feminist Women’s Health Center.

Can you get pregnant from pre-cum if you aren’t ovulating?

The short answer is yes: You can get pregnant from pre-cum even if you’re not ovulating.

Although pregnancy is most likely to happen when you’re ovulating, sperm can actually live inside your body for as long as five days. This means that if sperm is inside your reproductive tract before ovulation, it’s possible it’ll still be there and alive when you do ovulate.

Ovulation typically happens around the middle of your menstrual cycle. This is usually about 14 days before you start your next period.

Since sperm has a five-day life span inside your body, if you have sex regularly for five days before, as well as on the day you ovulate — known as “the fertile window” — you have a higher chance of becoming pregnant.

People with irregular periods will have a more difficult time knowing when they’re ovulating and fertile.

Options for emergency contraception

The pull-out method isn’t an effective way to prevent pregnancy. If you do use it, then it may be helpful to have emergency contraception (EC) handy in your medicine cabinet.

Emergency contraception can help prevent pregnancy up to five days after having unprotected sex. That’s because it delays or prevents ovulation from happening in the first place.

This means your mature egg won’t be released in order to be fertilized. It makes more sense to just use more reliable protection to prevent pregnancy from happening in advance.

There are two types of EC available over-the-counter or through your doctor:

Hormonal EC pills

You can take hormonal emergency contraceptive pills up to five days after unprotected sex. They’re most effective when you take them within the first 72 hours.

Hormonal EC pills are safe to take, but, like birth control, come with some side effects. This includes:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • breast tenderness
  • stomach pain
  • headache
  • dizziness
  • fatigue

You can purchase EC pills at your local drugstore. They can cost anywhere from $20 to $60, depending if you buy a generic or name-brand product.

If you’re insured, you can call your doctor and request a prescription. EC pills are considered preventative care, so they’re often free with insurance.

Emergency IUD contraception

The Copper-T is an intrauterine device (IUD) that can also work as emergency contraception. According to Princeton University, the Copper-T IUD can reduce your risk of becoming pregnant by more than 99 percent. This makes it more effective than hormonal EC pills.

Your doctor can insert the Copper-T IUD up to five days after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy. And as a form of long-term birth control, the Copper-T IUD can last for as long as 10 to 12 years.

Although the Copper-T IUD works better than EC pills, the steep cost of insertion can be barrier. If you’re uninsured, it can cost between $500 and $1000 in the United States. Most insurance plans will cover the Copper-T IUD for free or at a reduced cost.

When to take a home pregnancy test

Although the withdrawal method has been effective at times, there’s still a chance you may become pregnant from pre-cum. If you think you may be pregnant, you can take an at-home pregnancy test to find out for sure.

You may want to take an at-home test right away, but that can be too soon. Most doctors recommend you wait until after the first day of your missed period to take a pregnancy test. For the most accurate result, though, you should wait until the week after your missed period to test.

Women who don’t have regular periods should wait to test until at least three weeks after having unprotected sex.

When to see your doctor

You should confirm your results with your doctor. Although a positive result is almost always accurate, a negative test result isn’t as reliable. You may have tested too early or are on medications that have affected the results.

Your doctor may have you take a urine test, blood test, or both to determine if you’re pregnant or not. If you are pregnant, make sure to speak with your doctor about your options.

Bottom line:

Your chance of becoming pregnant from pre-cum may be slim, but it can still happen. Sperm can still be present in the urethra and mix with pre-cum that’s released before ejaculation.

If you use the withdrawal method, keep in mind that an estimated 14 to 24 percent of couples will become pregnant over the course of a year when using the withdrawal method, according to one 2009 article.

Choose a more reliable method if you want to avoid pregnancy. Consider keeping emergency contraception on hand to help. See your doctor if you have any concerns or have a positive pregnancy test. Your doctor can walk you through your options for family planning, abortion, and future birth control.

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Written by Annamarya Scaccia — Updated on November 12, 2019

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