- Pre-ejaculate, or pre-cum, is a fluid the penis produces during sex to help with lubrication.
- It can contain some sperm, but has much less than semen, meaning its less likely to cause pregnancy.
- To avoid pregnancy and STIs, wear a condom before engaging in penetrative sex.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
During sexual activity, the penis produces a lubricating liquid called pre-ejaculate before climax. While this fluid — also called pre-cum — isn’t the same as semen, it can contain sperm, says Sherry Ross, MD, an OB-GYN with her own practice. If you have unprotected sex, pre-cum can cause pregnancy even if your partner doesn’t ejaculate inside of you, says Ross.
Here’s what you need to know about pre-cum and the risks of pregnancy.
What is pre-cum?
Pre-cum and semen are different fluids released by the penis.
- Semen is the white fluid that is released during climax; this fluid typically contains millions of sperm designed to swim up through the vagina and fertilize an egg.
- Pre-cum is a thin, clear fluid that is produced during sexual arousal and in rare cases it may contain sperm.
Pre-cum and semen both exit the body via a tube in the penis known as the urethra. If any sperm cells from a previous ejaculation remain in the urethra, they can get picked up by the pre-cum as it passes through the urethra.
Pre-cum rarely contains sperm and even when it does, it doesn’t contain nearly as much semen as sperm does (where semen contains millions of sperm, pre-cum contains only a few thousand )
A small 2013 study examined 40 samples of pre-ejaculate fluid and found that 41% of them contained sperm. The study notes that some people are more likely to have sperm in their pre-cum than others, because some participants’ had sperm in all their pre-cum samples whereas some didn’t have sperm in any of their samples. Researchers have not been able to pinpoint why some people have sperm in their pre-cum and others don’t.
Can you get pregnant from pre-cum?
Pre-cum can definitely cause pregnancy if you have unprotected sex around the time of ovulation even if your partner pulls out before they climax, says Ross. In fact, you can even be at risk if you have had unprotected sex in the week leading up to ovulation, because sperm can survive in your reproductive tract for up to five days.
That’s mainly why pulling out, also known as the withdrawal method, isn’t a fail-safe method of pregnancy prevention. Approximately 27% of people who use the withdrawal method regularly as a form of contraception get pregnant.
It’s also worth noting that contact with genitalia or pre-ejaculate fluid without a barrier like a condom can put you at risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as well, even if there’s no ejaculation involved.
When does pre-cum occur during sex?
Unlike semen, it can be difficult to realize when pre-cum is released. It is also secreted involuntarily, so you or your partner cannot control when or how much is released.
Several factors play a role in how much is produced, including age, level of arousal, and duration of sexual activity. Some people may not produce any, or just produce a few drops, whereas others may produce quite a bit, all of which are normal.
Therefore, Ross recommends using a condom during sex, to prevent the possibility of pregnancy. “The penis should never enter the vagina without a condom,” says Ross. Putting on the condom before penetration, as soon as your partner is aroused, can help reduce the risk of STIs, like chlamydia.
While the likelihood you’ll get pregnant from pre-cum is lower than semen, it still poses a risk.
“If your partner did not wear a condom during vaginal intercourse and you are concerned about pre-cum, you should take an emergency contraceptive within 72 hours to avoid an unplanned pregnancy,” says Ross.
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