Sperm 101: The Basics of Sperm

illustration of pink human sperm against black background

SEBASTIAN KAULITZKI/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

When it comes to the raw materials of reproduction, you probably know the basics. The sperm fertilizes the egg, which leads to the creation of an embryo, which leads (eventually) to a baby.

Of course, there's more to it than that. You may even have some questions specifically about the sperm part. For example, how is sperm made? How long does sperm last? Can sperm count be improved?

To learn more, we turned to the experts ahead. Welcome to Sperm 101.

The Basics of Sperm Production

The process of sperm production is known as spermatogenesis. It begins when the pituitary gland, located at the base of the brain, produces two hormones that are critical to the male reproductive system. The follicle-stimulating hormone, or FSH, helps stimulate the production of sperm, while the luteinizing hormone, or LH, stimulates the production of testosterone.

The hormones act upon cells within a coil of tiny tubes inside the testicles called seminiferous tubes. The cells transform into millions of immature sperm cells, each about .05 millimeters long with a head and a short tail.

These sperm cells then move into a narrow tube called the epididymis that curves down the back of each testicle. You could think of this as a temporary storage facility for the sperm, where they will ultimately mature.

Sexual stimulation launches the next big move for the sperm. That’s when the mature sperm move into the vas deferens, a long, thick-walled tube, which takes them toward a cavity in the pelvis. Along the way, the seminal vesicles and prostate gland contribute fluids that mix together with the sperm to create semen. At the moment of ejaculation, the semen exits the body via the urethra and the penis.

The entire sperm production cycle takes between 70 and 75 days. “This means the sperm that are produced in the testicle today will be ejaculated in about 2.5 months’ time,” says Joel Batzofin, MD, a reproductive endocrinologist, and co-founder and medical director of Dreams Fertility.

And the process is never-ending. “Men are constantly making sperm, whereas women are born with a finite number of eggs,” notes Denise Asafu-Adjei, MD, a urologist and director of male reproductive medicine at Loyola University Chicago.

How Long Does It Take for Sperm to Reach the Egg?

Upon ejaculation, it’s a race to the egg.

It might only take the first sperm about 10 minutes to make it through the vagina and cervix, and from the uterus to the egg, although others may take a little longer to get there.

The sperm have to avoid the acidic environment of the vagina and possibly also make their way through any cervical mucus. During ovulation, however, that barrier is thinner and less acidic, which may speed things along, and the cervical mucus can aid the sperm's journey. The seminal fluid also helps with mobility.

How Long Can Sperm Live?

Even if fertilization doesn't occur, the ejaculated sperm don’t expire right away. Believe it or not, motile sperm—AKA sperm that are moving around—can survive in the female reproductive tract for as long as five days. Theoretically, the sperm could hang around long enough to fertilize an egg that hasn’t yet been released via ovulation, which is one of the reasons that we have post-coital contraceptives available.

However, the sperm will probably only last a couple of hours outside the body after ejaculation, Dr. Asafu-Adjei points out.

Can You Improve Your Sperm Count?

According to the World Health Organization, a "normal" sperm count is about 15 million sperm per mL of semen. If your sperm count dips below that level, you have what’s formally called oligospermia, or a low sperm count. If your semen doesn’t contain any sperm at all, you have azoospermia.

If you undergo a semen analysis that reveals that you have a lower-than-normal sperm count, your healthcare provider might recommend a repeat analysis because sperm counts can fluctuate.

“If the sperm count is below 10 million/mL, it is recommended to repeat the analysis to see if it is truly below 10 million/mL or actually higher,” says Spencer Richlin, MD, a reproductive endocrinologist, and partner and surgical director of Illume Fertility.

A lower-than-normal sperm count doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to impregnate a partner, according to Dr. Batzofin. But if you want to conceive, you should get a full evaluation from a specialist who can determine the possible underlying cause. It might be a structural issue, like a blocked tube in the reproductive tract, or it could be the result of certain medication.

However, if there aren’t any underlying structural or medical causes that need to be addressed, you can still try a few strategies that might improve your semen quality, which may also help boost your sperm count:

Abstain From Certain Substances—and Even Sex

You may have to cut back on a few things. “The first thing to do is ensure that you are not using anything that can decrease a healthy sperm count, which can include excessive alcohol consumption, smoking—both tobacco and marijuana—or steroid use for bodybuilding,” says Dr. Richlin.

You might also consider abstaining from sex for a couple of days, too, if you’re trying to conceive. “Ideal abstinence periods between ejaculations are two to three days,” says Dr. Batozfin. “Too frequent ejaculations can impede sperm replenishment.”

You may want to talk to a fertility specialist or your healthcare provider about when and how often to have sex, based on your specific circumstances and medical history.

Eat a Vitamin C-Rich Diet

Eating a well-rounded diet pays off in lots of ways, and one of them is improving your sperm. According to a 2016 study in Urology Journal, boosting your vitamin C intake can improve your sperm concentration and mobility.

You can get vitamin C from foods like grapefruits, oranges, bell peppers, or strawberries—and be sure to eat them on a regular basis. You could also consider taking a vitamin C supplement, but talk with your healthcare provider before starting any new vitamin regimens.

Exercise Regularly

It’s amazing what moving your body and working out can do for your sperm. That same 2016 study
also found that people who participated in an intensive exercise program for six months and lost weight as a result experienced an improvement in their semen volume, concentration, sperm mobility, and morphology. However, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider before throwing yourself into a big new exercise routine.

Stay Cool—Literally

If you’re trying to boost your sperm count, you might want to skip the jacuzzi, sauna, or hot baths. Research suggests that heat can put stress on the testicles, which can affect your sperm.

“Keep your scrotum cool, because sperm requires a slightly decreased temperature—about two degrees lower than the rest of your body," says Dr. Asafu-Adjei. “Production is actually optimized at those slightly cooler temperatures.”

A Word From Verywell

If you have any questions about your sperm count, semen quality, or your fertility in general, talk to your healthcare provider and ask about undergoing a fertility analysis. Most of the time, a male fertility workup will start with a semen analysis and go from there.

If you want to start a family but you’re worried about a low sperm count, also consider this: Technology has come a long way.

“The field of reproductive medicine is so incredible,” says Dr. Richlin. “Even those with incredibly low sperm counts are able to grow their families, as we now have options like ICSI, IUI, and IVF. If you have even some healthy sperm, you are likely to be successful.”

11 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Holstein AF, Schulze W, Davidoff M. Understanding spermatogenesis is a prerequisite for treatment. Reprod Biol Endocrinol. 2003;1(1):107. DOI: 10.1186/1477-7827-1-107

  2. Nemours/Kids Health. Male Reproductive System

  3. Center for Male Reproductive Medicine & Microsurgery. The Epididymis.

  4. Khatun A, Rahman MS, Pang MG. Clinical assessment of the male fertilityObstet Gynecol Sci. 2018;61(2):179-191. doi:10.5468/ogs.2018.61.2.179  

  5. Suarez SS, Pacey AA. Sperm transport in the female reproductive tract. Human Reproduction Update. 2006;12(1):23-37. DOI: 10.1093/humupd/dmi047

  6. UCSF. Conception: How it Works

  7. Li D, Wilcox AJ, Dunson DB. Benchmark pregnancy rates and the assessment of post-coital contraceptives: an update.Contraception. 2015;91(4):344-349. doi: 10.1016/j.contraception.2015.01.002

  8. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. What are some possible causes of male infertility?

  9. Rafiee B, Morowvat MH, Rahimi-Ghalati N. Comparing the effectiveness of dietary vitamin c and exercise interventions on fertility parameters in normal obese menUrol J. 2016;13(2):2635-2639. PMID: 27085565

  10. Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health. Vitamin C.

  11. Hamilton TR dos S, Mendes CM, de Castro LS, et al. Evaluation of lasting effects of heat stress on sperm profile and oxidative status of ram semen and epididymal sperm. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2016;2016:1687657. doi:10.1155/2016/1687657

Additional Reading
  • Hamilton TR dos S, Mendes CM, de Castro LS, et al. Evaluation of lasting effects of heat stress on sperm profile and oxidative status of ram semen and epididymal sperm. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2016;2016:1687657.


    doi:10.1155/2016/1687657  

  • Khatun A, Rahman MS, Pang MG. Clinical assessment of the male fertility. Obstet Gynecol Sci. 2018;61(2):179-191.


    doi:10.5468/ogs.2018.61.2.179  

  • Nemours/Kids Health. Male Reproductive System. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/male-reproductive.html

  • Rafiee B, Morowvat MH, Rahimi-Ghalati N. Comparing the effectiveness of dietary vitamin c and exercise interventions on fertility parameters in normal obese men. Urology Journal. 2016;13(2).


    https://doi.org/10.22037/uj.v13i2.3279

  • UCSF. Conception: How it Works. https://crh.ucsf.edu/fertility/conception

By Jennifer Larson
Jennifer Larson is a seasoned journalist who regularly writes about hard-hitting issues like Covid-19 and the nation's ongoing mental health crisis, as well as healthy lifestyle issues like nutrition and exercise. She has more than 20 years' of professional experience and hopes to log many more.