Gonorrhea

What is gonorrhea?

It is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). An estimated 1 million cases of gonorrhea are reported each year. At least that same number goes unreported.

What are the symptoms?

Most women do not have symptoms, which is why screening is very important.

Symptoms may appear 2 days to 3 weeks after a person has been exposed to someone with the infection.

Some men and women will not have symptoms at all until the disease has caused severe health problems.

Women will have:

  • Vaginal discharge
  • Painful, burning sensation with peeing
  • Lower abdominal pain and fever

Men will have:

  • Painful, burning sensation with peeing
  • Milky white to yellow discharge from the penis
  • Redness and swelling around the opening of the penis
  • Pain and swelling in the testicles

How can you get gonorrhea?

  • You can get it during vaginal, oral, or anal sexual contact.
  • Babies can get gonorrhea during birth if the mother has this infection.
    • It is important you are treated for STIs if you are pregnant.

How do I know if I have gonorrhea?

In many cases, it is very hard to see the symptoms of gonorrhea. People may not know that they have an infection. People can carry the disease for long time without knowing it.

Other people have no idea they might have a gonorrhea infection until a partner(s) is diagnosed and treated.

The only sure way to know is to be tested.

Can gonorrhea be dangerous?

Yes.  Even if symptoms are not present, gonorrhea infections can cause serious health problems.

If left untreated, it can cause in:

Adults

  • Permanent damage to the fallopian tubes–this can cause infertility or difficulty getting pregnant.
  • Sterility or unable to have children
  • Ectopic or tubal pregnancy–this is a serious condition which can cause death in the mother.
  • Arthritis or painful swelling in joints

Infants

  • Eye infections can cause blindness.

How is gonorrhea diagnosed?

Swabs are taken from the vagina in women and the penis in men. A cotton swab is used to collect these.

Samples are sent to a laboratory for testing. Test results take about 3 to 7 days.

This test is usually not painful and can be done even when there are no symptoms.

How is it treated?

While gonorrhea can be serious if left untreated, it can be cured with antibiotics. Treatment is with antibiotics in the form of an injection and an oral prescription. You should take all the medicine as instructed to make sure treatment works.

Unfortunately, antibiotic treatment cannot change complications you have from an infection already.

How can I keep from getting an infection?

Guidelines are the same as for other STIs

  • Reduce or minimize the number of sexual partners that you have. Make sure that you discuss sexual monogamy or other expectations with any new partners.
  • Do not stop using protection until both you and your partner are tested and are negative for STIs.
  • Use protection during sexual activity.
    • The best protection is to use condoms (rubbers) for each sexual contact.
    • Spermicidal foams and jellies, and diaphragms are less reliable. You should use those along with condoms, not in place of them.

If you think you have been exposed to gonorrhea, see a doctor right away. 

Make sure your partner is treated also. 

Do not have sexual contact until 2 weeks after you and your partner have been treated.

Partners can infect and reinfect each other. 

Also, partner(s) of those with gonorrhea should be tested and treated right away to keep further spread of the disease.

What follow up will I need?

A follow-up appointment will be scheduled 3 months after antibiotics are finished for another gonorrhea test.

You need to retest for gonorrhea to make sure you are fully treated and that you did not get re-infected. 

Some populations, such as pregnant women, need a test sooner than 3 months to ensure that their infection is cleared.

Last reviewed: 
May 2020

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