How to Tell if Your Semen Is Healthy: Key Signs to Check for

It’s common for men to have questions about their semen and its color, smell, consistency, and volume. “I get many men who are obsessed with semen and what it looks like,” said Lael Stieglitz, M.D., a urologist at Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center in Jacksonville, Florida. Urologist T. Mike Hsieh, M.D., echoed Stieglitz. “People are obsessed about their semen quality,” said Hsieh, director of the Men’s Health Center at UC San Diego Health. In this article, experts discuss what healthy semen looks, smells, and tastes like, as well as when you should be concerned.

Difference between sperm and semen

It’s important to distinguish semen from sperm. Semen is the fluid that comes out when a man ejaculates. Semen contains millions of sperm, which are reproductive cells formed in the testicles, and fluids made in the prostate and other glands. The purpose of semen is to transport sperm so that the sperm can swim to meet and fertilize the egg, the female sex cell, by passing on its genetic material.

For men who are interested in their fertility, they’re mostly concerned regarding what’s going on with their sperm, rather than their semen. A semen analysis primarily looks at the characteristics of the sperm inside the semen.

“Your sperm is a very small part of your semen,” Hsieh said. “Most of the semen is produced by something called a seminal vesicle and the prostate.”

What does healthy semen look like?

Semen should be whitish-grayish or off-white and somewhat thick, similar to a runny, jelly-like substance. However, it’s not possible to assess how healthy semen is based merely on its appearance or texture.

Unfortunately, the color and consistency of semen do not tell us much regarding abnormalities, according to Hsieh.

“A lot of people worry and say, It doesn’t look right. It’s too thin. It’s too whatever. None of those are really specific for infertility or problems,” Hsieh said.

It’s normal for semen to not look the same every time you ejaculate. A slight change in coloration is normal.

“There’s going to be some natural variation based on your health status, hydration, the last time you ejaculated, and things like that,” said Thomas Masterson, M.D., an assistant professor of urology at the Desai Sethi Urology Institute in the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami.

Color of semen

Semen is usually cloudy white or gray in color. Semen is comprised of a variety of proteins, minerals, enzymes, antioxidants, and hormones, which can contribute to the color. Semen can be yellow, green, red, brown, or black. Minor changes in color may be no cause for concern. However, some color changes could indicate an underlying condition or infection.

Yellow and green semen

Yellow semen could be small amounts of urine present in the ejaculate. If a man had prostate surgery or a neurogenic problem, they may be having some urine come out with the semen, which could give it a yellowish color, Masterson said.

“It can also be related to infectious processes,” he said. “Yellow and green or greenish [semen] can be pus. That’s where you think about sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea and chlamydia.”

Jaundice, a condition that causes yellowing of the skin and eyes, may also lead to yellow semen.

Red, brown, and black semen

Reddish, brownish, or blackish semen typically means there is blood in the semen.

It can be anywhere on the spectrum of blood product breakdown, Masterson said, so bright red to brownish to speckled to black.

“Blood in the semen, while incredibly scary, is usually not a big issue, meaning it’s not cancer,” Masterson said, adding that for the vast majority of patients, the issue will resolve on its own.

Blood in the semen is usually related to inflammation or bleeding within the prostate or the seminal vesicles, a pair of glands that produce most of the fluid that makes up semen, as well as trauma. Often, the cause of the blood cannot be identified. In rare cases, it's a sign of prostate cancer.

“You can develop small stones, and you can have blood vessels that break,” Masterson said. “Guys who have high blood pressure can sometimes have episodes of blood in their ejaculate. Fortunately, it’s usually not anything life-threatening.”

However, even though it's usually benign, it's best to see your healthcare provider just to make sure it's not a sign of something more serious. If the symptoms persist or you have certain risk factors, such as being over the age of 40 or you've had cancer before, further testing may be needed.

Consistency of semen

Semen is typically thick. However, some conditions may change its consistency.

“If a man is trying to conceive, then it should have a little bit of a thickened consistency,” Stieglitz said. Thin or watery semen may also be caused by frequent ejaculation.

Men who ejaculate multiple times per day may experience watery semen because the seminal vesicles and prostate gland need time to “catch up” on semen production, according to the International Society for Sexual Medicine (ISSM). The ISSM also noted that watery semen could indicate low sperm count or zinc deficiency.

Some men have jelly-like clumps in their ejaculate, which is normal.

During a semen analysis, one of the factors looked at is liquefaction, which is how long it takes the semen to go from the more jelly-like to liquid form.

Quantity of the semen

Normal semen volume ranges anywhere from one and a half to five milliliters.

Stieglitz finds that most men have around a teaspoon, or about five milliliters, of semen when they ejaculate.

“Some guys have less; some guys have more,” Stieglitz said. “I think the big take-home message is I don’t chase issues with the way semen looks or feels or anything unless it’s for fertility issues.”

Certain medications can cause retrograde ejaculation, which is when semen travels backward into the bladder instead of out through the penis. Alpha-blockers, which are commonly prescribed to treat urinary symptoms associated with an enlarged prostate, are known to lead to retrograde ejaculation and reduced ejaculate volume.

Taste of semen

The taste of semen can vary by individual. It’s often described as slightly salty, slightly sweet, metallic, earthy, or bitter.

Semen contains fructose, a type of sugar.

“In theory, [fructose] should give it some sort of flavor,” Masterson said. “But I don’t know that anyone’s done a good study on that.”

Hsieh said there are supplements that claim to improve semen taste, smell, and volume.

“I don’t recommend taking supplements for that,” Hsieh said, adding that a change in the taste is usually due to lifestyle or dietary factors, and it does not indicate fertility problems.

Smell of semen

It’s normal for semen to smell a bit like ammonia, chloride, or bleach because semen is slightly alkaline (between 7.2 and 8.0 on the pH scale). If the semen smells especially foul or fishy, it’s not normal and could be a sign of an underlying condition or sexually transmitted infection (STI).

A common claim is that fruits, such as pineapple, can make semen taste sweeter. However, there is no scientific evidence to support this.

When you are dehydrated, your semen, like urine, is likely to be more concentrated and may have more of an odor, according to Hsieh and Masterson.

“Hydration status is definitely one of the things that we tell everybody to pay attention to,” Hsieh said. “That’s probably the biggest modifiable thing.”

What impacts semen health?

Some of the factors that can impact semen health include:

  • Alcohol consumption
  • Zinc deficiency
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Environmental factors

A systematic review and meta-analysis found that “alcohol intake has a detrimental effect on semen volume.” According to a review article, zinc deficiency — and too much zinc — can reduce semen quality. One study found that both restricted and excessive sleep may impair semen quality.

Exposure to adverse environmental factors, such as air pollution, harmful chemicals, and pesticides, can lead to reduced semen quality, according to research. The exact mechanism by which these environmental factors affect semen and fertility is not clear.

Stieglitz said it’s important to think of your reproductive system as being reliant on your cardiovascular system.

“Everything you do for a healthy heart, you would do for a healthy penis, prostate, and semen,” Stieglitz said. “Exercise regularly. Don’t smoke. Don’t be a heavy drinker. Avoid drugs.”

Diagnosis of healthy semen

A semen analysis is the only definitive way to know how healthy your semen and sperm are. This lab test looks at sperm count, sperm motility (movement), and sperm morphology (shape), among other factors. There are also many at-home semen analysis test kits available on the market.

A semen culture is a test that checks for bacterial growth in the semen. This is usually done in patients who have symptoms of prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate) or epididymitis (inflammation of the tube at the back of the testicle).

How to have healthy sperm

The following lifestyle and dietary factors all support healthy sperm and fertility:

Semen parameters, which include sperm count, percentage of sperm that are able to swim, and the shape of the sperm, as well as sperm function, are 22% poorer in smokers compared to non-smokers, according to the American Society of Reproductive Medicine.

“Cigarette smoking is bad for many, many things, and it’s bad for sperm production,” Hsieh said. “But it might not change the semen quality at all. You can have normal semen quality but have bad sperm count.”

“Semen health and sperm health are not always correlated,” Hsieh continued. “If you’re concerned about fertility, get a semen analysis. Don’t freak out over how things look, smell, or taste.”

The association between drinking alcohol heavily and poor sperm quality has been reported in many studies. In men, chronic alcohol consumption affects sperm by:

  • Lowering testosterone levels and raising estrogen levels, which reduces sperm production
  • Altering the shape, movement, and size of the sperm
  • Changing gonadotropin, a hormone that regulates testicular function, thereby impacting sperm production

According to a 2023 meta-analysis, heavy alcoholics who consumed more than 7 units per week harmed the semen index and sex hormones, especially by increasing estradiol. Elevated levels of estradiol, a sex hormone, can have a negative impact on sperm production in men. The analysis also noted that moderate alcoholics who consumed less than 7 units per week had no change in semen index.

One study of sperm donors found that men who got the most total exercise and spent the most time doing intense workouts had better sperm quality than men who got the least amount of exercise.

When to seek professional help

If you see blood in the semen, schedule an appointment with a urologist so they can check for infection or inflammation. Masterson said if you notice a drastic change in the color of your semen — or if anything doesn’t seem right — get evaluated. Having pain during ejaculation is another reason to see a doctor.

Very low semen volume (i.e., a few drops) should be evaluated by a fertility specialist if you are trying to conceive naturally.

The appearance of semen can vary from person to person, and some variations might still be considered normal. If you have concerns about your semen or sperm, it’s best to schedule an appointment with a urologist.

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