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Gonorrhea

Reviewed By: Dr. Kurt Kloss, MD
Last Reviewed Date: Dec 13, 2018
Last Modified Date: Dec 13, 2018
Published Date: Dec 13, 2018

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter 1: Gonorrhea: The Basics
Chapter 2: Gonorrhea Symptoms For Men
Chapter 3: Gonorrhea Symptoms For Women
Chapter 4: Gonorrhea Solution for Preventing Spread: Get Tested
Chapter 5: Best Online Resources if you have Gonorrhea


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 infection cells

Gonorrhea: The Basics

This STD is caused by an infection with a bacterium called Neisseria gonorrhoeae. It can infect the mucus membranes in the bodies of both men and women, including the membranes in the reproductive tract, anus, mouth, throat and eyes. According to the CDC, 820,000 people in the U.S. get new gonorrhea infections every year through vaginal, anal or oral sex with an infected partner.

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 Symptoms For Men

For Men

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 the 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:

  • Rash 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

Woman notices vaginal symptoms of STD on toilet

Gonorrhea Symptoms For Women

Women who are exposed to the gonorrhea bacteria from an infected sexual partner can expect this STD to have an incubation of anywhere between 2 and 30 days. Symptoms that may appear in women who has 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 be certain that they have been infected based on symptoms alone. This highlights the importance of being screening as the best means of detecting this STD.

The very common issue of contracting gonorrhea without showing 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; but 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 such as joint inflammation and pain and life-threatening heart or brain infections

    Gonorrhea Solution for Preventing Spread: Get Tested

    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.

    Lab Tests for Gonorrhea are the First Step

    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.

    Details on the potential long-term complications of gonorrhea are available from the American Sexual Health Foundation's gonorrhea page, Harvard Medical School and University of Maryland Medical Center.

    According to these institutions, untreated gonorrhea in men can cause serious complications that include:

    • Scarring or narrowing of the urethra
    • Infertility
    • Prostate damage

    Long-term complications of gonorrhea in women can include:

    • Pelvic inflammatory disease
    • Infertility
    • Increased risk of ectopic pregnancy
    • Infection of infants during birth

    Complications of untreated gonorrhea that can occur in both men and women include the spread of the infection to the blood, joints or brain, which can be life-threatening, and a greater risk of contracting HIV.

    Best Online Resources if you have Gonorrhea

    Here, we'll point you towards some of the best gonorrhea resources to help you learn what to do if you think you have gonorrhea.

    Sites that can offer solid information on the symptoms of gonorrhea include the CDC's Gonorrhea Fact Sheet, Planned Parenthood's Gonorrhea page, Mayo Clinic and TeensHealth.org.

    While we've covered quite a few of the important points in this guideline, more information on gonorrhea can be found via the organizations mentioned above. For your convenience, here is a concise listing of these top 10 resources for gonorrhea information:

    • CDC: Gonorrhea Fact Sheet
    • Planned Parenthood: Gonorrhea
    • Mayo Clinic: Gonorrhea
    • CDC National HIV and STD Testing Resources
    • Health Testing Centers
    • WebMD Sexual Conditions Health Center
    • American Sexual Health Foundation: Gonorrhea
    • Harvard Medical School: Health Publications: Gonorrhea
    • University of Maryland Medical Center: Gonorrhea

    References:

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.2015 Sexually transmitted diseases treatment guidelines. (2015). Retrieved from: www.cdc.gov/std/tg2015/toc.htm

    Gonorrhea and chlamydia: Screening. (2014). Retrieved from: www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/Page/Document/RecommendationStatementFinal/chlamydia-and-gonorrhea-screening

    Gonorrhea - CDC fact sheet (detailed version). (2015). Retrieved from: www.cdc.gov/std/gonorrhea/stdfact-gonorrhea-detailed.htm