Gonorrhea Overview

Gonorrhea is a common STD. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates some 820,000 new infections in the United States every year. Unfortunately, because symptoms show up in fewer than half the cases, gonorrhea infections often go undiagnosed and untreated.

Gonorrhea is caused by a bacteria, Neisseria gonorrhoeae. It can be passed from person to person during vaginal, anal and oral sex, even if the tongue, penis or sex toy doesn't fully penetrate the anus or vagina. The bacteria attacks the mucous membranes it comes in contact with, including inside the penis, vagina, anus and throat. It's also possible for an infected mother to transmit gonorrhea to her baby during vaginal childbirth, potentially causing a miscarriage, damage to the baby's eyes, or other health complications. Transmission most commonly occurs during unprotected sex but can be spread even with the use of a condom.

The good news is that gonorrhea is easily treated and curable with antibiotics. Left untreated, however, gonorrhea can lead to serious health problems down the road, from infertility to cystitis and Disseminated Gonococcal Infection (DGI). It also increases your risk of getting other STDs, like HIV.

Gonorrhea spreads easily. If you have it, your sexual partner probably does, too. All partners should get tested and treated to avoid reinfection.

Gonorrhea Symptoms

Most of the time, gonorrhea is silent, meaning you can have the infection and not know it. That's why getting tested is so important. In the absence of symptoms, our doctors recommend STD testing 3 weeks after exposure to allow time for the bacteria to be detectable through testing and again in 3 months as some STDs take longer to show a positive test.

Gonorrhea symptoms in women

  • No symptoms
  • Vaginal discharge
  • Burning or painful urination
  • Bleeding after sex or between periods
  • Pelvic pain
  • Lower back pain
  • Nausea or fever
  • Pain during sex
  • Sore throat
  • Rash
  • Rectal discharge, pain or bleeding

Gonorrhea symptoms in men

  • No symptoms
  • Discharge from penis
  • Burning or painful urination
  • Burning, discomfort or itching around the opening of the penis
  • Testicular pain or swelling
  • Sore throat
  • Rash
  • Rectal discharge, pain or bleeding

Throat or rectal symptoms

Both men and women who have anal sex and may get rectal infections and experience gonorrhea symptoms including rectal discharge, pain, bleeding, or swelling of the rectum.

If you've have had oral sex recently, a sore throat and pain upon swallowing, it could mean gonorrhea in the throat. While most throat infections are caused by a virus or Strep, it's recommended you see your local healthcare provider for a throat examination and a swab test to rule out gonorrhea, which cannot be done at a standard testing facility.

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Gonorrhea Risks & Complications

How do people get infected with gonorrhea?

Anyone can get gonorrhea, usually through unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex.

What are some ways that gonorrhea cannot be spread?

You cannot get gonorrhea from toilet seats, towels, shaking hands, deep kissing, sharing a glass of water, or the like. Gonorrhea is only transmitted sexually, or through birth.

If I get gonorrhea once, is it possible to get it again?

Even if you've been treated for gonorrhea, you're not immune. You can be re-infected. That's why sexual partners should be treated at the same time so that an untreated partner still carrying the bacteria doesn't re-infect the treated partner. It’s recommended to wait one week after antibiotic treatment to resume sexual activity.

What if gonorrhea is untreated?

Left undiagnosed and untreated, gonorrhea can cause reproductive problems and other health complications. That's why getting tested is so important.

Untreated gonorrhea in women may result in:

  • Infertility
  • Miscarriage or life-threatening ectopic pregnancy (pregnancy outside the uterus)
  • Bladder inflammation
  • Pelvic pain

Untreated gonorrhea in men may result in:

  • Infertility
  • Narrowed and scarred urethra
  • Prostate inflammation
  • Inflammation of the testes and epididymis

Latent gonorrhea complications

Disseminated Gonococcal Infection (DGI) is an uncommon complication. It occurs when the gonorrhea spreads to other parts of the body (e.g., bloodstream, heart, joints and skin) and may include these symptoms:

  • Arthritis or joint inflammation
  • Fever, chills, body aches
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Headaches or a stiff neck
  • Skin rash or lesions
  • Seizures

While DGI affects only 3% of people with gonorrhea, it can cause very serious health problems and is another reason to get tested sooner rather than later.

Gonorrhea and HIV

People with gonorrhea are more likely to get HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. It's estimated that 27% of people with an HIV infection were diagnosed with gonorrhea within the previous 12 months.

In general, someone who has one STD is at greater risk for infection with other STDs, including HIV. That's because STDs can cause ulcers, sores, or otherwise break the skin or mucous membranes making carriers more susceptible to infection. Also, someone with one or more STDs may have a weakened immune system that makes them more vulnerable to other diseases.

Gonorrhea and pregnancy

There's a risk that a mother infected by the bacteria can pass it to her baby during delivery, potentially causing blindness, joint problems, a blood infection or other risks to the infant's health. To reduce these complications, early testing and treatment of gonorrhea is critical for pregnant women.

If you're pregnant and concerned about gonorrhea, be sure to consult your local healthcare provider.

Gonorrhea Testing & Treatment

How do I get tested for gonorrhea?

We make getting tested for gonorrhea simple with a discreet testing kit, mailed directly to you. Gonorrhea and chlamydia are included in the same testing kit, because both conditions are detected by the same test at the lab and both conditions (dual infection) can occur at the same time.

What gonorrhea test results mean

A positive test or abnormal test result means you have an active gonorrhea infection that can be easily treated and cured with antibiotics. A negative test result doesn't necessarily mean that you are free of the bacteria … sometimes the infection, or signs of the infection, don't show up right away and repeat testing is needed.

If you test positive, we're here to help. You'll have the opportunity to talk to our doctors for a phone consult. We'll answer any questions about your results and help you determine the next steps.

When should I test for gonorrhea?

In the absence of symptoms, our doctors recommend STD testing 3 weeks after exposure, then retesting 3 months later to pick up any STD not initially identified. A “testing window” is the period of time between when you get infected with a STD and when the test turns positive. For example, if you had unprotected sex last night and became infected with gonorrhea, the test might not be positive. It can take up to three weeks to test positive. The testing windows are different for each STD which is why testing at 3 weeks and again at 3 months is recommended.

Gonorrhea Re-infection

Even if you were treated for gonorrhea, you could be at risk for reinfection, especially if your partner has not been treated. We recommend testing again in 3 months to make sure that you haven't been reinfected. According to The New England Journal of Medicine, 11% of people with gonorrhea get re-infected.

Is there a cure or treatment for gonorrhea?

Yes. Once you've been tested and diagnosed with gonorrhea, it can be cured with antibiotics. Our doctors will discuss what type of treatment is best for you.

Gonorrhea can recur 

Once you've been treated, the gonorrhea infection should clear within a week, but you're not immune. You can be re-infected. That's why sexual partners should be tested and treated if they are infected so they don’t reinfect you. You'll need to abstain from sex for at least one week after treatment.

Note: Retesting 3 months after taking antibiotics is an effective way to determine if the treatment was successful.

Be sure to practice safe sex and use latex condoms to minimize the risk of reinfection.

Gonorrhea and chlamydia co-infection is common

People infected with gonorrhea are often co-infected with chlamydia, therefore doctors routinely test for both at the same time.

Pregnancy and antibiotics

Gonorrhea can be cured during pregnancy with antibiotics. Consult with your OB/gynecologist about the risks involved and to discuss what type of treatment is best for you

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