How Long Does Sperm Live?

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The lifespan of sperm contained in human semen depends very much on the circumstances in which it is ejaculated.  

Sperm released into a non-sterile environment – such as during masturbation or while using the withdrawal method of contraception – will only remain active for two or three hours.

However, when sperm is ejaculated into the female vagina the sperm cells can still fertilize the female egg as long as five days after intercourse. One of the reasons for this longevity is that the cells are nourished by mucus produced in the female cervix.  

Male sperm is produced in the testes, a procedure which takes 90 days. Until they are released they are stored in a ‘holding bay’ within the male duct system in the region of the testicles known as the epididymis. Survival time in ‘storage’ has not been able to be recorded, but it is known that semen with the highest active sperm levels is found in those subjects who ejaculate every two or three days.  Research seems to point to the fact that more frequent ejaculation can result in less potent sperm.

Under strict sterile conditions a sperm sample can be kept indefinitely, providing it is stored in liquid nitrogen and maintained at a temperature of -196 Celsius.  Known as cryogenic storage this extreme treatment is not guaranteed to keep alive all the sperm – only about 20% of the sample will survive. The remainder will expire within 48 hours of being stored. These healthy survivors can be kept for as long as fifty years.

In 1986 a 16 year old English youth who was about to undergo radical radiation treatment for leukemia had active sperm samples placed in cryogenic storage and 22 years later (2009) the defrosted sperm was injected into one of his partner’s eggs, and nine months later he was the proud father of a healthy baby girl. This is the longest recorded successful storage of sperm.

There has been much development in fertility research in the last forty years, the biggest leap forward being in sperm storage methods and this has given new hope to millions of couples who, without this pioneering work, would be unable to conceive in the normal way.

A great deal more is now known about male fertility and the longevity of male sperm once it has left the testes.

As well as being able to store sperm when a man is faced with a medical procedure which could destroy his fertility, the efficient storage of sperm for artificial insemination is now a large industry with hundreds of donors, both voluntary and paid, providing sperm for those couples having difficulty conceiving due to the male having a low sperm count, and the increasing demand for same sex couples looking to have children.

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