We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions will remain anonymous. This week’s topic: whether precum can get you pregnant or give you STDS.
Q: I just learned that one of my best friends is pregnant. She’s really excited but also told me it was unexpected — that they used protection and everything, but it happened anyway. I talked to her more and it turns out that she only uses condoms right before her partner cums, not the whole time. She seemed to think this was fine and that she was being safe, but I remember learning about precum in health class back in highschool, that there is sperm in it maybe? So I want if you can get pregnant from precum, and also can you get other things like STDs from precum? Because if I don’t actually need to have my boyfriend wear a condom until right before he cums, then that would be really awesome! But I don’t want to do anything that could get me pregnant or sick.
A: Lots of people are confused about how to have safe sex while dealing with precum, also called the more scientific names "pre-ejaculate," "pre-seminal fluid," and "Cowper’s fluid" (named as such because it’s produced in the Cowper’s gland, which you may remember from biology class). Whatever you call it, this is the clear lubrication stuff that comes out of the penis before ejaculation.
The amount of precum someone produces varies person to person, with some penis-owning humans making up to 5ml, and others none at all. If you’re getting sexy with someone who does produce pre-ejaculate (and they may not know if they do or not) then you have to pay attention to whether it is getting in your body. Why? Let’s answer that right now.
Can You Get Pregnant From Pre-Ejaculate?
The question of whether precum can get you pregnant is a bit tricky to answer, because the research isn’t definitive — some studies have found traces of sperm in pre-ejaculate, while others have not, and the sample sizes for all available studies are really small. The Cowper’s gland fluid doesn’t have any sperm in it when it’s made, but there can be sperm in precum itself. This happens because precum fluid travels from its birthplace in the Cowper’s gland through the urethra to get outside the body. If the penis you’re having sex with ejaculated recently, there could be some alive sperm left behind from the last orgasm.
So, can you or can’t you? The consensus is that, while it’s very very unlikely that you’ll get pregnant from just precum, it can happen.
Which STDs Can You Get Through Precum?
While it’s still hard to say whether precum can get you pregnant, there’s no question that you can get some sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) from pre-seminal fluid. The ones to look out for are HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and Hepatitis B.
While by no means the death sentence it used to be, HIV is a virus that comes with a lot of health challenges. There’s currently no cure, and so it’s a good idea to do your best not to get it. This virus lives in blood, vaginal fluid, semen, breast milk, and precum. You can get it and not know you have it, so it’s important to get tested regularly.
If you know you’re having sex with someone who is HIV positive (or you don’t know if they are or not), make sure you’re protecting yourself. You can do this two ways. Condoms act as a physical barrier against any of your partner’s fluid getting into your body. Truvada (often called Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis or PrEP for short) is a pill you can take every day to protect yourself against HIV. PrEP isn’t 100 percent effective but it’s in the high 90th percentile, which is pretty great.
If you happen to contract HIV, don’t freak out. Your life truly isn’t over — not by a long shot. It’s completely possible to live healthily with HIV, as long as you take your medication and support your body. The primary concern for people living with HIV is actually not medical — it’s the stigma.
Chlamydia is very common in humans with vaginas (particularly if you’re a young person), so it’s a good one to know about. This bacteria can live in vaginal fluid, semen, and precum. It’s very possible to have chlamydia and not know it — most people have no symptoms, in fact. If you do experience symptoms they can include more vaginal discharge than usual, vaginal itching and burning, pain during sex, and painful urination. Luckily, if you test positive for chlamydia, you can get it cleared right on up with antibiotics.
Gonorrhea is another very common bacterial infection that can be transmitted through precum (as well as semen and vaginal fluid). And it’s another “silent” STD, as in you can have it and have no idea, because you’re asymptomatic. Symptoms you could get include yellow vaginal discharge, vaginal itching, burning, or redness, and pain when you pee or have sex. The good news is that if you have gonorrhea, you can get rid of it with antibiotics. The less good news is that some strains of gonorrhea have become resistant, which makes treatment more difficult if you happen to contract a resistant strain.
Hepatitis is a bloodborne virus that impacts your liver. There are multiple strains of hepatitis (specifically A, B, and C), all of which can severely impair your liver function, leading to illness and even death. Only Hepatitis B can be transmitted through precum (all types can be transmitted through semen, vaginal fluid, and blood).
If you get Hepatitis B, you’ll probably get symptoms about one-to-four months later. These can include abdominal or joint pain, fever, nausea, fatigue, weakness, dark pee, or jaundice, which is when your skin and eyes turn yellow. Unfortunately there’s no cure for Hepatitis B, although there is a vaccine. Luckily your body usually clears it within a few months. If you don’t get rid of it, you can take medication to slow down liver damage.
The Bottom Line
If you’re having sex with someone whose body makes precum, the only way to make absolutely sure it doesn’t get into your body is to use a condom.
It’s good to know that even that won’t be completely effective, because as you may know, even if you use condoms correctly every time you have sex, they are only 98 percent effective (because they can break or slip). And, since most people don't use condoms correctly every time, the typical use efficacy rate is actually 82 percent.
So what should you do? The reality is that no sex is 100 percent safe — what you can do is minimize your risk. One way of doing that is making sure that, as much as is possible, no fluids potentially carrying sperm or STDs can get into your body — and that means using condoms if you aren't fluid-bonded and on birth control.
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