A Cowper’s gland, or bulbourethral gland, is one of two pea-sized organs found at the base of the penis that produce secretions necessary for fertile sexual activity. Together with the prostate and seminal vesicles, these glands make a mucus-like substance that goes into semen and also acts as a lubricant during sex. They also makes pre-ejaculate fluid, which is the primary lubricant secreted by men during sex and also helps with fertilization and keeps the urethra clear of debris. The amount of fluid secreted varies depending on how old a man is, how long it's been since he ejaculated, and how aroused he is.
Function of Secretions
Pre-ejaculate fluid, produced solely by the Cowper’s gland, serves three main functions. It's slightly alkaline, so it neutralizes acid levels in a man's urethra so that his sperm can move freely. It also flushes the urethra of debris like pathogens. This fluid may sometimes pick up sperm left over from previous ejaculations and bring them into the vagina. Once the pre-ejaculate fluid reaches the vagina, it raises its pH slightly, which makes it more hospitable to sperm. This increases the chances of conception.
A glycoprotein called Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) is also present both in the pre-ejaculation fluid produced by the Cowper’s gland and in semen. PSA keeps semen in a highly versatile liquid form, which helps sperm reach the egg when a woman is fertile. It also makes sperm clot and form structures near a woman's cervix, which is the entrance to the uterus. The sperm can survive in these structures for up to five days, which also increases the chance of conception.
Cowper's glands rarely have serious problems, but they can become infected if a person contracts a Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD). In this case, a man may have painful urination, abdominal discomfort, or discharge from the penis. These glands can also get abscesses or cysts, which can be painful. This is more common in adolescents than in adults though. People should not try to drain these types of lesions at home, as they can damage the urethra, but a healthcare provider can usually drain them easily.
Additionally, some men have a rare condition called Cowper's syringocele, in which the duct of a Cowper's gland becomes swollen. This usually causes things like bloody urine, lower stomach pain, painful urination, and continued dribbling after urination. In some cases, it resolves spontaneously, but in others, surgery may be required to keep the duct open and functioning properly.
Sexual dysfunction in men sometimes happens when the Cowper's gland is producing pre-ejaculation fluid. This is sometimes called the plateau phase. In this phase, both physical or psychological stress can prevent the gland from functioning properly. For example, muscle tension can cause it to produce less fluid, as can emotional distress. Since less fluid is produced, the urethra and vagina will be less hospitable to sperm. When combined with the lack of adequate lubrication, this can lead to problems with conception.