It may only take one sperm to make a baby, but you need millions of healthy sperm to beat the long odds of your swimmers actually reaching an egg. That’s where sperm count comes in.
If you’re trying to put a bun in the oven, and it’s just not happening, the answer could be in your load. Here’s how to figure out where your sperm count stands.
Normal sperm counts can range from 15 million to as high as 300 million sperm per milliliter.
“There is no upper limit for sperm counts, as “too high” values do not appear to have a clinical relevance,” according to reproductive endocrinologist Barry Witt, MD, medical director at Greenwich, Connecticut-based WINFertility.
Any sperm count under 15 million per milliliter is considered low (aka oligospermia).
Fifteen million sounds like a lot of sperm. But some research believes that amount might not be enough either. A 2010 study found men with sperm counts below 40 million sperm per milliliter actually have a steadily decline in their ability to have kids.
A semen analysis can tell you about your sperm count. You can schedule an appointment with a urologist, who will collect a semen sample and have it analyzed by an andrology laboratory. The test is relatively inexpensive — typically under $100.
“Sometimes a semen analysis may be performed in a doctor’s office or even by using an ‘at-home’ test, but the quality and completeness of the results may vary from those obtained at an andrology laboratory,” says Witt.
But any laboratory offering semen analysis can provide a simple sperm count. Some labs also offer a “post vasectomy” analysis which simply tells you if there is the presence or absence of viable sperm.
Producing a semen sample is about as simple as you might expect: you masturbate into a cup. Your urologist will provide a private room for a sample collection sesh. Typically, the room will contain stimulating printed material to raise your, um, mood. But you can also use your phone to surf to your favorite repository of online erotica.
And no worries about producing an exceptionally large load. Just 0.5 milliliters of semen is enough for analysis.
If you live close to your urologist’s office, you can often do this at home. You just have to deliver your sample within the hour you ejaculate. And, make sure to keep the sample at or near room temperature.
“Put it between your legs as you drive to the doctor’s office,” advises Anthony Propst, MD, a reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist at Texas Fertility Center in Austin, Texas.
You’ll need to abstain from ejaculating — whether from sex or masturbation — for 2 to 5 days prior to your visit. “This is to ensure there is enough semen to analyze,” says Justin J. Houman, MD, of Tower Urology in Los Angeles.
A urology visit typically includes a patient history, an overall physical exam, and a genital exam. So, be prepared to discuss your medical history, including a list of any medications you’re currently taking.
The main focus of a semen analysis is on the number of sperm, but that’s not the only factor that determines male fertility.
In addition to a sperm count, a semen analysis will include information on the number of moving sperm (aka motility) and normal shaped sperm (aka morphology). Having at least 40 percent motile sperm, and at least 4 percent with an ideal shape, is considered normal.
A semen analysis will also include information on your semen’s pH, ejaculate volume, liquefaction, and appearance.
“All of these parameters are important for male fertility,” Witt says.
Not sure how to read a semen analysis? Here’s what it will generally include, and what “normal” WHO ranges to look for:
|Testing parameter||What is means||WHO “normal” range|
|total sperm count in ejaculate||how many sperm in ejaculate||39–928 million|
|ejaculate volume||size of the sample||1.5–7.6 mL|
|sperm concentration||how much sperm per ML||15–259 million per mL|
|total motility (progressive and nonprogressive)||percentage of moving sperm||40–81 percent|
|progressive motility||percentage of sperm moving in straight line or large circles||32–75 percent|
|sperm morphology||percentage of sperm with a normal shape||4–48 percent|
When it comes to baby making sperm, size doesn’t matter. But numbers do.
“Although only one sperm is necessary to fertilize an egg and result in a pregnancy, the chances of conception occurring are related to the numbers of sperm in the ejaculated semen,” says Witt.
“With low sperm counts, even though there may be millions of sperm, the chances of conception are significantly reduced, and the lower the count, the less the chance of conception.”
“The more normal your sperm counts are, the more likely you are to conceive naturally if you have a female partner with a normal reproductive evaluation,” adds Houman.
Studies estimate about 15 to 20 percent of couples worldwide experience infertility, with 30 to 40 percent stemming from male infertility factors.
A medical condition could be to blame for your small swim team. Things that can cause low sperm count, include:
- Low testosterone levels. This can be treated with medications like clomiphene or an aromatase inhibitor. However, men with low sperm count should not take testosterone itself, which can shut down the body’s production of natural testosterone and suppress sperm production.
- Low levels of certain hormones. If the hormones that stimulate the testicles to produce sperm are low, it can lead to low sperm count. This can be caused by thyroid dysfunction or elevations in a hormone called prolactin. It can be treated with medication.
- An abnormal vein near the testicle. Called a varicocele, this vein is similar to a varicose vein on the scrotum and can hurt sperm quality and quantity. The vein can be removed surgically to improve fertility.
- Retrograde ejaculation. This condition is associated with diabetes where sperm end up in the bladder rather than exiting the penis. It can also happen as result of certain medications or after certain surgeries.
- Genetic abnormalities. Genetic mutations like microdeletions of the Y chromosome or a mutation in the cystic fibrosis gene can hurt sperm count.
- Lifestyle factors. Things like eating an unhealthy diet, getting too little exercise, and other lifestyle factors, like your environment, can affect your sperm count.
- Eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise. Studies have linked being overweight to low sperm quality and quantity. Losing weight is an easy way to change these sperm issues.
- Quit smoking. Studies show smoking cigarettes can have adverse effects on sperm health.
- Reduce your alcohol and other drug use. “Drinking excessively can lower testosterone levels, cause erectile dysfunction, and decrease sperm production,” Houman noted. “There’s also evidence that alcohol abuse and acute intoxication are associated with sexual dysfunction.”
- Avoid using anabolic steroids and testosterone supplements. Taking extra testosterone can alter natural testosterone production and reduce your sperm production.
- Limit your exposure to environmental toxins, including air pollution. Studies show environmental toxins can affect your hormones and your sperm count and quality.
- Increase your intake of vitamins C, E, and folate. All of these vitamins can help your overall health and your reproductive system.
- Reduce your stress levels. The effects of stress can eff with your whole body, including your sperm count. Try finding your Zen with meditation, yoga, exercise, or finding that work-life balance.
- Give your balls a break. Try avoiding activities that increase the temperature of the scrotum above body temperature, like frequent hot tub soaks and bike riding. Even wearing lose-fitting underwear might help.
Sperm count is crucial to male fertility. Low sperm count can significantly reduce your odds of having a baby. A simple semen analysis will tell you if your sperm count is low.
If you find your swimmers are low, there are surgical interventions, medication, and lifestyle changes that can help increase your sperm count.
If nothing seems to work, chatting with a fertility clinic can help you and your partner look into other ways to conceive.