Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by infection with the Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacterium. N. gonorrhoeae infects the mucous membranes of the reproductive tract, including the cervix, uterus, and fallopian tubes in women, and the urethra in women and men. N. gonorrhoeae can also infect the mucous membranes of the mouth, throat, eyes, and rectum.
Gonorrhea is a very common infectious disease. CDC estimates that approximately 820,000 new gonorrheal infections occur in the United States each year, and that less than half of these infections are detected and reported to CDC.1 CDC estimates that 570,000 of them were among young people 15-24 years of age. In 2014, 350,062 cases of gonorrhea were reported to CDC.2
Gonorrhea is transmitted through sexual contact with the penis, vagina, mouth, or anus of an infected partner. Ejaculation does not have to occur for gonorrhea to be transmitted or acquired. Gonorrhea can also be spread perinatally from mother to baby during childbirth.
People who have had gonorrhea and received treatment may be reinfected if they have sexual contact with a person infected with gonorrhea.
Any sexually active person can be infected with gonorrhea. In the United States, the highest reported rates of infection are among sexually active teenagers, young adults, and African Americans 2.
Many men with gonorrhea are asymptomatic 3, 4. When present, signs and symptoms of urethral infection in men include dysuria or a white, yellow, or green urethral discharge that usually appears one to fourteen days after infection 5. In cases where urethral infection is complicated by epididymitis, men with gonorrhea may also complain of testicular or scrotal pain.
Most women with gonorrhea are asymptomatic 6, 7. Even when a woman has symptoms, they are often so mild and nonspecific that they are mistaken for a bladder or vaginal infection 8, 9. The initial symptoms and signs in women include dysuria, increased vaginal discharge, or vaginal bleeding between periods. Women with gonorrhea are at risk of developing serious complications from the infection, regardless of the presence or severity of symptoms.
Symptoms of rectal infection in both men and women may include discharge, anal itching, soreness, bleeding, or painful bowel movements 10. Rectal infection also may be asymptomatic. Pharyngeal infection may cause a sore throat, but usually is asymptomatic 11, 12.
Untreated gonorrhea can cause serious and permanent health problems in both women and men.
In women, gonorrhea can spread into the uterus or fallopian tubes and cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). The symptoms may be quite mild or can be very severe and can include abdominal pain and fever 13. PID can lead to internal abscesses and chronic pelvic pain. PID can also damage the fallopian tubes enough to cause infertility or increase the risk of ectopic pregnancy.
In men, gonorrhea may be complicated by epididymitis. In rare cases, this may lead to infertility 14.
If left untreated, gonorrhea can also spread to the blood and cause disseminated gonococcal infection (DGI). DGI is usually characterized by arthritis, tenosynovitis, and/or dermatitis 15. This condition can be life threatening.
Untreated gonorrhea can increase a person’s risk of acquiring or transmitting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS 16.
If a pregnant woman has gonorrhea, she may give the infection to her baby as the baby passes through the birth canal during delivery. This can cause blindness, joint infection, or a life-threatening blood infection in the baby 17. Treatment of gonorrhea as soon as it is detected in pregnant women will reduce the risk of these complications. Pregnant women should consult a health care provider for appropriate examination, testing, and treatment, as necessary.
Any sexually active person can be infected with gonorrhea. Anyone with genital symptoms such as discharge, burning during urination, unusual sores, or rash should stop having sex and see a health care provider immediately.
Also, anyone with an oral, anal, or vaginal sex partner who has been recently diagnosed with an STD should see a health care provider for evaluation.
Some people should be tested (screened) for gonorrhea even if they do not have symptoms or know of a sex partner who has gonorrhea 18. Anyone who is sexually active should discuss his or her risk factors with a health care provider and ask whether he or she should be tested for gonorrhea or other STDs.
CDC recommends yearly gonorrhea screening for all sexually active women younger than 25 years, as well as older women with risk factors such as new or multiple sex partners, or a sex partner who has a sexually transmitted infection.
People who have gonorrhea should also be tested for other STDs.
Urogenital gonorrhea can be diagnosed by testing urine, urethral (for men), or endocervical or vaginal (for women) specimens using nucleic acid amplification testing (NAAT) 19. It can also be diagnosed using gonorrhea culture, which requires endocervical or urethral swab specimens.
If a person has had oral and/or anal sex, pharyngeal and/or rectal swab specimens should be collected either for culture or for NAAT (if the local laboratory has validated the use of NAAT for extra-genital specimens) 20.
Gonorrhea can be cured with the right treatment. CDC now recommends dual therapy (i.e. using two drugs) for the treatment of gonorrhea. It is important to take all of the medication prescribed to cure gonorrhea. Medication for gonorrhea should not be shared with anyone. Although medication will stop the infection, it will not repair any permanent damage done by the disease. Antimicrobial resistance in gonorrhea is of increasing concern, and successful treatment of gonorrhea is becoming more difficult 21. If a person’s symptoms continue for more than a few days after receiving treatment, he or she should return to a health care provider to be reevaluated.
A person can spread gonorrhea to others from the time they become infected (by having unprotected sex with an infected partner) until they are treated.
A person can spread gonorrhea to others even if they do not have symptoms. If you are taking medicine, do not have sex for 7 days after your treatment is over. You should avoid having further sexual contact until both you and your partner have been treated properly. You can treat gonorrhoea using prescription antibiotics, usually given in both in tablet and injection form. After treatment you should see your symptoms start to improve. Symptoms should start improving 24-48 hours. Symptoms normally clear within a week of treatment, if you are still experiencing symptoms than you should consult the clinic where you received treatment for further advice. It is also good to follow up treatment with a ‘test of cure’ to check that you are now clear of any STIs, this can be organised through our website or via the clinic. This follow up test is normally done 4 weeks after the treatment to see if the infection has cleared.
If a person has been diagnosed and treated for gonorrhea, he or she should tell all recent anal, vaginal, or oral sex partners (all sex partners within 60 days before the onset of symptoms or diagnosis) so they can see a health provider and be treated 20. This will reduce the risk that the sex partners will develop serious complications from gonorrhea and will also reduce the person’s risk of becoming reinfected. A person with gonorrhea and all of his or her sex partners must avoid having sex until they have completed their treatment for gonorrhea and until they no longer have symptoms. For tips on talking to partners about sex and STD testing, visit http://www.gytnow.org/talking-to-your-partner
Latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, can reduce the risk of transmission of gonorrhea 22. The surest way to avoid transmission of gonorrhea or other STDs is to abstain from vaginal, anal, and oral sex, or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected.