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How To Identify Gonorrhea Symptoms

Reviewed By: Dr. Kurt Kloss, MD
Last Reviewed Date: Dec 07, 2018
Last Modified Date: Dec 07, 2018
Published Date: Mar 22, 2018

Gonorrhea is a very common sexually transmitted disease (STD). It is caused by bacteria that is easily transmitted from one person to another via sexual contact, including vaginal, anal or oral sex. Gonorrhea infection can develop, with exposure to the bacteria, in the genitals, rectum, mouth and throat. If you are sexually active, you are at risk for contracting this STD, so it is important to know how to identify gonorrhea symptoms.

Gonorrhea symptoms vary greatly, depending upon whether you are male or female. They also vary in type and intensity from one affected individual to another. Additionally, it is important to know that not everyone has symptoms when they have gonorrhea, with some people experiencing no symptoms at all, and others having mild ones that are easily overlooked or mistaken for other ailments. What that means is that getting tested for this and other STDs regularly is essential to protecting your sexual health. If you think you may have been exposed or are exhibiting symptoms, getting tested immediately is wise, to prevent the possibility of further complications.

gonorrhea definition headline

Common Gonorrhea Symptoms for Females

Women who are exposed to the gonorrhea bacteria by an infected sexual partner can expect this STD to have an incubation period - which means the time it takes for infection to develop after exposure - of anywhere from 2 to 30 days. Symptoms that may appear in women with a gonorrhea infection may include:

  • Painful urination
  • Frequent urination
  • Vaginal swelling, redness, irritation, burning and/or itching
  • Abnormal discharge from the vagina, which may be yellowish in color or bloody
  • Vaginal bleeding between periods
  • Pain and/or bleeding during sex
  • Itching, discomfort, bleeding or discharge from the anus
  • Pain during bowel movements
  • Abdominal pain and/or cramping
  • Fever, tiredness, sore throat and other flu-like symptoms
  • Rarely, eye irritation/infection that resembles pink-eye

It is important to note that many, if not most, females who contract gonorrhea have no symptoms in the early stages of the disease. Others may have very mild symptoms that are often mistaken for run-of-the mill vaginal infections, urinary tract infections or even a common cold or flu. This can make it very difficult for women to know that they have been infected based on symptoms alone, making regular gonorrhea screening the best means of detecting this STD.

The very common issue of infection with no gonorrhea symptoms also makes it easy for the disease to go undetected and untreated for some time. Not only does this make it more likely that the disease will spread, it can also lead to a variety of serious complications in women. Untreated gonorrhea can result in the infection spreading throughout a woman's reproductive system, causing complications that can include:

  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can lead to chronic pelvic pain and/or infertility
  • Tubo-ovarian abscess, which is an infection, in the form of a pus-filled pocket, that forms on the fallopian tube or ovary and can lead to sepsis, a life-threatening condition
  • Ectopic (tubal) pregnancy
  • Pregnancy complications, such as miscarriage, preterm labor/delivery, or stillbirth
  • Transmission of gonorrhea to newborns, which can cause debilitating or even fatal complications

Untreated gonorrhea infections can also spread to other parts of the body, causing problems that can include joint inflammation and pain and life-threatening heart or brain infections

Common Gonorrhea Symptoms for Males

Men who have been exposed to the gonorrhea bacteria are more likely to develop noticeable symptoms within the 2 to 30-day incubation period than are women. Many men have no gonorrhea symptoms in the early stages of infection or develop very mild ones that can be easily mistaken for other conditions. In men who do develop symptoms, these may include:

  • Burning or pain during urination
  • Frequent urination
  • Discharge from the penis, which may be white, yellow or green
  • Pain and/or swelling in the testicles
  • Anal itching, bleeding or discharge
  • Pain during bowel movements
  • Fever, sore throat, fatigue or other flu-like symptoms
  • Rarely, eye infection that resembles pink eye

Since men are more likely to display symptoms that cause them to seek testing and treatment, complications that can occur with long-term gonorrhea are less likely. However, they can occur in some men when this STD is not treated in a timely fashion, which gives the infection time to spread to other areas of the body. This is especially likely in the significant numbers of men who do not have gonorrhea symptoms with infection or may overlook milder symptoms. These can include:

  • gonorrhea infection cellsRash and/or skin infection
  • Joint pain and/or inflammation
  • Inflammation in the tendons
  • Prostate inflammation
  • Epididymitis, which is infection and inflammation in tubes that carry sperm and can lead top infertility
  • Heart infection and inflammation
  • Meningitis, which is infection in the brain and spinal cord

Gonorrhea Testing: Crucial for Early Detection and Treatment

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 468,514 new cases of gonorrhea were reported in 2016, an increase of 18.9 percent from the previous year. Among the most important reasons that gonorrhea is so common among people of all ages, from all walks of life and of any sexual preference, is that a lot of people who are infected with this STD are not aware of their condition. Many, as outlined above, do not get clear symptoms after infection. Many others, who do experience symptoms, may not identify them as gonorrhea symptoms, especially when they are mild or feel like a common cold, flu or urinary tract infection. What this means is that getting regular screening tests for gonorrhea is important to protect your sexual health and to help detect an infection before you unknowingly transmit it to others.

When should you be tested? Firstly, testing after any unprotected sexual encounter is important, especially if it is with a new partner or a person who may have more than one sexual partner. Testing should also be done if you notice any symptoms that may indicate infection, or if you suspect that a former or current partner may be infected. Women should be screened for gonorrhea and other STDs during pregnancy, and all sexually active people should get routine screening tests for gonorrhea and other common STDs once a year.