Gonorrhea

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What is gonorrhea?

Gonorrhea is a common sexually transmitted disease (STD). More than 700,000 people in the United States get new gonorrheal infections each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Source: CDC). Young adult African-American females have the highest rate of infection.

Gonorrhea is caused by a bacterial infection of the cervix in women or the urethra in men by the gonococcal bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae. The anus, throat and eyes can also be infected by gonorrhea. Gonorrhea is diagnosed by testing a small sample of cells or discharge taken from a woman’s cervix or a man’s urethra.

Gonorrhea is preventable and treatable. Any person who engages in sexual activity can contract and pass on a gonorrhea infection. This includes heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual men and women. The more sexual partners a person has, the greater the risk of catching a gonorrhea infection. Gonorrhea can also be passed from an infected mother to her baby during vaginal delivery.

Untreated gonorrhea infection can lead to serious complications, such as pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility. Using safer sex practices, seeking regular medical care, and seeking early, regular prenatal care can help reduce the risk of serious complications of gonorrhea.

What are the symptoms of gonorrhea?

Symptoms of gonorrhea infection vary among individuals. It is not unusual for both men and women with gonorrhea to have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all in the early stage of the disease. However, serious permanent damage to the reproductive tissues, infertility, and other complications can occur even in the absence of symptoms.

Symptoms of gonorrhea generally begin to occur about two to five days and up to about 30 days after exposure to the disease through sexual contact.

Symptoms in women include:

Symptoms in men include:

  • Cloudy discharge from the penis

  • Fever

  • Frequent urination

  • Male infertility

  • Pain or burning with urination

  • Testicular pain

Symptoms of gonorrhea can also occur in the anus or throat if sexual activity and gonorrhea infection involved these areas. These symptoms can include:

What causes gonorrhea?

Gonorrhea is caused by a bacterial infection of the cervix in women or the urethra in men by the gonococcal bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae. The anus, throat and eyes can also be infected by gonorrhea.

Gonorrhea is passed from one person to another during sexual contact that involves vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Gonorrhea infection can also be passed from an infected mother to her baby during vaginal delivery.

Any person who engages in sexual activity can contract and pass on a gonorrhea infection, including heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual men and women.

What are the risk factors for gonorrhea?

The more sexual partners a person has, the greater the risk of catching gonorrhea. Risk factors for gonorrhea include:

  • Being born to a mother with gonorrhea

  • Having multiple sexual partners (the more sexual partners a person has, the greater the risk of catching gonorrhea)

  • Having sex, including vaginal, oral, or anal sex, with a person who has gonorrhea

  • Having unprotected sex, including vaginal, oral, or anal sex, with a partner who has had one or more other sexual partners

  • Pediatric sexual abuse by an infected individual

  • Sex work, contact with sex worker, or drug use

  • Use of contraceptive intrauterine devices (pelvic inflammatory disease)

Reducing your risk of gonorrhea

Catching and passing on gonorrhea is preventable. It is important to understand that it is possible to transmit gonorrhea even when there are no symptoms.

Not all people who are at risk for gonorrhea will develop the disease. You may be able to lower your risk of contracting and spreading gonorrhea by:

  • Abstaining from sexual activity after being diagnosed with gonorrhea until you and your sex partner(s) have been completely treated and are cleared to resume sexual activity by your health care provider

  • Engaging in sexual activities only within a mutually monogamous relationship in which neither partner is infected with gonorrhea or has risk factors for gonorrhea

  • Getting regular, routine medical care

  • Seeking medical care as soon as possible after possible exposure to gonorrhea or after high-risk sexual activity

  • Seeking prenatal care early and regularly during a pregnancy

  • Using latex condoms properly for all sexual contact

How is gonorrhea treated?

Gonorrhea is treatable, and prompt diagnosis and treatment can help to reduce the risk of developing serious complications, such as pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility, and minimize the spread of the disease to others. You can treat gonorrhea by consistently following your treatment plan. Treatment plans generally include antibiotic medications and other treatments. Sexual partners should be notified and treated.

Antibiotic medications for gonorrhea include:

  • Cefixime

  • Ceftriaxone

  • Silver nitrate eye drops may be used for an infant born to a mother with gonorrhea.

Other treatments for gonorrhea include:

  • Abstaining from sexual activity until the infection is cured and your sexual partner(s) have been treated, regardless if symptoms existed

  • Hospitalization for complications, such as pelvic inflammatory disease and pelvic abscess

What are the possible complications of gonorrhea?

Complications of untreated gonorrhea can be serious. You can minimize the risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you.

Serious complications of gonorrhea include:

Serious complication of prenatal gonorrhea

Newborn babies are at risk for complications if their mothers have gonorrhea during pregnancy. Complications to newborn babies include:

  • Gonococcal conjunctivitis (neonatal ophthalmia)

  • Loss of vision and blindness

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 10
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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