What is gonorrhea?

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Everything You Need to Know About Gonorrhea

What is gonorrhea?

Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae.

This common STI tends to target warm, moist areas of the body, including the:

urethra, or tube that drains urine from the bladder
eyes
throat
vagina
anus
female reproductive tract, which includes the fallopian tubes, cervix, and uterus
Gonorrhea can affect people of any age or gender, but it’s particularly common Trusted Source among teens and young adults between the ages of 15 and 24.

Untreated gonorrhea can lead to long-term health concerns and, in some cases, infertility. But treatment with antibiotics can cure the infection and help lower your chances of experiencing health complications.

How is gonorrhea transmitted?

You can contract or transmit gonorrhea by having oral, anal, or vaginal sex.

Using a condom or other barrier method when engaging in sexual activity can go a long way toward lowering your chances of transmitting or contracting STIs like gonorrhea. Just keep in mind these barrier methods won’t always completely eliminate your risk, especially if you don’t use them properly.

Here’s how to use condoms and barrier methods correctly.

Some evidence also suggests that oral gonorrhea may also be transmitted through French kissing, or kissing with tongue. However, more research is needed to truly understand the potential risk of transmission.

If you’ve developed gonorrhea before, you have a higher chance of contracting it again. Untreated gonorrhea can also increase your riskTrusted Source of contracting other STIs.

Gonorrhea can also be transmitted from birthing parent to baby during delivery.

Symptoms of gonorrhea


You may not always notice any symptoms if you have gonorrhea. But even if you’re an asymptomatic carrier — which means you have no symptoms — you can still transmit gonorrhea.

You might even be more likely to transmit it to your sexual partner(s) when you don’t have any symptoms, since you aren’t aware you have the infection.

You’re more likely to notice signs and symptoms of gonorrhea in the morning, according to Planned Parenthood.

If you have a penis
You may develop noticeable symptoms of gonorrhea within 2 to 30 days after exposure. That said, it may take several weeks for symptoms to appear, and you might not experience any symptoms at all.

Burning or pain during urination may be the first symptom you notice.

Other possible symptoms include:

greater frequency or urgency of urination
a pus-like discharge or drip from your penis (this discharge could be yellow, white, beige, or greenish)
discoloration and swelling at the penis opening
testicular swelling or pain
itching and soreness in your anus
rectal bleeding or discharge
pain when having bowel movements
If you have a vagina
Many people with a vagina don’t develop any symptoms of gonorrhea. Symptoms you do experience can show up anywhere from a day or so to several weeks after you’re exposed.

These symptoms are often fairly mild. What’s more, they can seem very similar to symptoms of vaginal yeast or other bacterial infections, which can make them even more difficult to recognize.

Possible symptoms include:

watery, creamy, or greenish vaginal discharge
pain or burning while urinating
an urge to urinate more frequently
heavier periods or spotting between periods
pain during penetrative vaginal sex
sharp pain in your lower abdomen
itching and soreness in your anus
rectal bleeding or discharge
painful bowel movements
Other gonorrhea symptoms
Gonorrhea can also affect your mouth and throat.

Oral gonorrhea symptoms can include:

a persistent sore throat
inflammation and redness in your throat
swelling in the lymph nodes in your neck
Gonorrhea can also cause a fever.

Gonorrhea may spread to your eyes. This typically happens if you touch your genitals, or the site of the infection, and then touch your eye before thoroughly washing your hands.

Symptoms of gonococcal conjunctivitis, or gonorrhea of the eye, can include:

eye pain, irritation, and tenderness
swelling in your eyelid
eye inflammation and redness
stringy white or yellow mucus around your eye

Tests for gonorrhea


A healthcare professional can diagnose gonorrhea in a few different ways:

Testing your urine. Often, a urine test can detect gonorrhea.
Testing a sample of fluid. A healthcare professional may also swab your penis, vagina, throat, or rectum to get a sample of fluid for testing. This type of test requires a laboratory culture, which can take several days.
Testing your blood. In rare instances, a healthcare professional may use a blood test to detect gonorrhea. However, this test may not be conclusive.
You’ll generally receive results within a few days, though this can depend on your clinic or testing location. Some clinics may provide test results within a few hours.

If you believe you could have gonorrhea, it’s important to avoid any sexual activity until you receive a negative test result.

You may also consider purchasing an at-home gonorrhea test.

Complications of gonorrhea


If you have a vagina, you have a higher chance of experiencing long-term complications of untreated gonorrhea.

Untreated STIs like gonorrhea and chlamydia may move into the reproductive tract and affect the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. This can lead to a condition known as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID can cause severe, chronic pain and damage to the reproductive organs.

Blocking or scarring of the fallopian tubes, another possible complication, can:

make it more difficult to become pregnant
cause ectopic pregnancy, which happens when a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus
Gonorrhea may also pass to a newborn infant during delivery.

If you have a penis, untreated gonorrhea may lead to:

scarring of the urethra
a painful abscess inside your penis, which can affect your fertility
epididymitis, or inflammation of the semen-carrying tubes near your testicles
An untreated infection can also spread to your bloodstream, where it can cause rare but seriousTrusted Source complications such as arthritis and heart valve damageTrusted Source.

Treatment of gonorrhea


Modern antibiotics can cure gonorrhea, in most cases.

You can’t treat gonorrhea with over the counter or home remedies. If you think you could have gonorrhea, or a sexual partner receives a positive test result, you’ll need to get a diagnosis and treatment from a healthcare professional.

Not sure where to get tested and treated?

Most states offer free or lower cost diagnosis and treatment at state-sponsored health clinics.

Antibiotics
The recommended treatmentTrusted Source for gonorrhea is a one-time intramuscular injection of the antibiotic ceftriaxone. Typically, you’ll get this shot in the buttocks. A healthcare professional will likely also prescribe an oral medication, such as:

a twice-daily dose of doxycycline for 7 daysTrusted Source
The CDC previously recommended ceftriaxone plus azithromycin, but the guidelines were changed because the bacteria causing gonorrhea are becoming increasingly resistant to azithromycin.

After taking these antibiotics, you should begin to feel relief from any symptoms within days — but you’ll need to wait a full week after finishing your medications before participating in any sexual activity.

If your symptoms persist for more than a few days after treatment, you’ll need to get in touch with a clinic or healthcare center for retesting.

For oral gonorrhea, you’ll need to follow up with a healthcare professional 1 to 2 weeks laterTrusted Source to make sure the infection has cleared.

Can gonorrhea be cured?
Antibiotics can cure gonorrhea.

Still, the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of gonorrheaTrusted Source poses some challenges for successful treatment.

That’s why you’ll generally receive both an injection and oral dose of antibiotics. If the first treatment approach doesn’t work, a healthcare professional will prescribe another antibiotic, which you’ll take once or twice a day for 7 days.

It’s important to take all of your medication to completely treat the infection, even if your symptoms go away before you finish your prescription.

If you continue to have symptoms after taking your antibiotics as prescribed, contact a healthcare professional as soon as possible so they can try a different treatment.

Preventing gonorrhea
Researchers are working to develop a vaccine to prevent gonorrhea transmission. To date, though, no vaccine can prevent the infection.

The safest way to prevent gonorrhea and other STIs is through abstinence. And of course, using a condom or other barrier method every time you have oral, anal, or vaginal sex can also help lower your risk of contracting many STIs.

Another important step toward preventing STI transmission? Always have an open conversation with new partners before beginning a sexual relationship.

It’s also a good idea to check in with your current partner(s) about STI status and testing, and make sure to get tested regularly yourself.

If a partner has symptoms of gonorrhea or any other STI, encourage them to get tested and abstain from sexual activity until they receive a negative result.

What to do if you’ve contracted gonorrhea
If you think you may have contracted gonorrhea, you’ll want to avoid sexual activity and make an appointment to get tested at a doctor’s office or another health clinic.

At your appointment, you’ll answer questions about your:

symptoms
sexual health history
sexual partner(s)
For some people, talking about sexual health can feel slightly uncomfortable. It’s important to remember that healthcare professionals are there to diagnose and treat any health conditions you develop, and they should always do so with compassion and respect.

Contacting any previous partners
You’ll want to let your current sexual partner(s) know they should get tested for gonorrhea right away.

If a healthcare professional diagnoses gonorrhea, they may also ask for the names and contact information of any previous sexual partners.

The law requires healthcare professionals to report the diagnosis, usually to the county public health department. Public health officials will then contact your partner(s) anonymously and explain that they’ll need to get tested for gonorrhea.

The health department takes this step because gonorrhea often doesn’t involve symptoms. People who don’t know they have the infection may not get tested or treated. As a result, they might transmit it without realizing — or go on to develop serious, sometimes permanent, reproductive health concerns.

The bottom line
If you think you could have contracted gonorrhea, you’ll want to get tested right away. Keep in mind this infection is very common — and nothing to feel ashamed or embarrassed of.

You can take steps to avoid transmitting or contracting gonorrhea by using barrier methods for all sexual activity, getting tested for STIs regularly, and talking with your partner(s) about STIs before you start a sexual relationship.

Crystal Raypole writes for Healthline and Psych Central. Her fields of interest include Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health, along with books, books, and more books. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and a lovably recalcitrant cat.

 

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