Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Gonorrhea is caused by Neisseria gonorrhoeae, a bacterium that can grow and multiply easily in the warm, moist areas of the reproductive tract –– including the cervix (opening to the womb), uterus (womb), and fallopian tubes (egg canals) in women, and in the urethra (urine canal) in women and men. The bacterium can also grow in the mouth, throat, eyes, and anus.
Because gonorrhea can exist in several different areas of the body, several different tests are required to determine its presence. The most common way medical professionals test for gonorrhea is through a urine sample. Most of the time, this will be sufficient to diagnose genital gonorrhea. Note, some facilities may still use a swab to collect a sample from within a man’s urethra or a woman’s cervix in order to test for gonorrhea.
A urine sample will not detect gonorrhea located in either the anus or the mouth/throat. Rather, for individuals who have either of those forms of gonorrhea, a simple swab test is required. Fortunately, you can order a swab-kit that you can use to test yourself in the privacy of your own home. Oral gonorrhea, in particular, may be ignored by some because its symptoms are similar to that of strep throat. However, it is possible for a person with oral gonorrhea to pass on genital gonorrhea to their partners.
Gonorrhea testing is quick, painless, and very accurate. All sexually active individuals should be tested for gonorrhea regularly, and all pregnant women should receive a screening for STDs –– including gonorrhea –– before and during their pregnancy.
How Common is Gonorrhea?
Gonorrhea is a very common infectious disease. The CDC estimates that more than 700,000 persons in the U.S. get new gonorrheal infections each year. Only about half of these infections are reported to CDC. In 2017, 555,608 cases of gonorrhea were reported to CDC. That figure represents a 75% increase from 2009 totals. In the period from 1975 to 1997, the national gonorrhea rate declined, following the implementation of the national gonorrhea control program in the mid-1970s. After several years of stable gonorrhea rates, though, the national gonorrhea rate increased for the consecutive years in the mid-2000s. Now, gonorrhea is one of the most prevalent STDs in the U.S.
How do People get Gonorrhea?
Gonorrhea is spread through sexual contact with the penis, vagina, mouth, or anus. Gonorrhea can also be spread from mother to baby during delivery. It is also possible to contract gonorrhea in your throat and rectum. This can happen during unprotected oral sex or anal sex. Ejaculation does not have to occur for gonorrhea to be transmitted or acquired.
People who have had gonorrhea and received treatment may get infected again if they have sexual contact with a person infected with gonorrhea. And you can also contract other STDs in conjunction with gonorrhea.
Who is at Risk for Gonorrhea?
Any sexually active person can be infected with gonorrhea. In the U.S., the highest reported rates of infection are among sexually active teenagers, young adults, and African Americans.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Gonorrhea?
Some men with gonorrhea may have no symptoms at all. However, some men have signs or symptoms that appear two-to-five days after infection; symptoms can take as long as 30 days to appear. Symptoms and signs include:
- A burning sensation when urinating.
- White, yellow, or green discharge from the penis.
- Painful or swollen testicles.
In women, the symptoms of gonorrhea are often mild, but most women who are infected have no symptoms. Even when a woman has symptoms, they can be so non-specific as to be mistaken for a bladder or vaginal infection. The initial symptoms and signs of gonorrhea in women include:
- Painful or burning sensation when urinating.
- Increased vaginal discharge.
- 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. Rectal infection also may cause no symptoms. Infections in the throat may cause a sore throat but usually leads to no symptoms beyond that.
What are the Complications of Gonorrhea?
Untreated gonorrhea can cause serious and permanent health problems in both women and men.
In women, gonorrhea is a common cause of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). About one million women each year in the U.S. develop PID. The symptoms may be quite mild, but they can also be very severe and can include abdominal pain and fever. PID can lead to internal abscesses (pus-filled “pockets” that are hard to cure) and long-lasting, chronic pelvic pain. PID can damage the fallopian tubes enough to cause infertility or increase the risk of ectopic pregnancy. Ectopic pregnancy is a life-threatening condition in which a fertilized egg grows outside the uterus, usually in a fallopian tube.
In men, gonorrhea can cause epididymitis, a painful condition of the ducts attached to the testicles that may lead to infertility if left untreated.
Gonorrhea can spread to the blood or joints. This condition can be life-threatening. In addition, people with gonorrhea can more easily contract HIV –– the virus that causes AIDS. HIV-infected people with gonorrhea can transmit HIV more easily to someone else than if they did not have gonorrhea.
What is the Treatment for Gonorrhea?
Several antibiotics can successfully cure gonorrhea in adolescents and adults. However, drug-resistant strains of gonorrhea are increasing in many areas of the world, including the U.S., and successful treatment of gonorrhea is becoming more difficult. Because many people with gonorrhea also have chlamydia, another STD, antibiotics for both infections are usually given together. Persons with gonorrhea should be tested for other STDs as well.
It is important to take all of the medication prescribed to cure gonorrhea. Although medication will stop the infection, it will not repair any permanent damage done by the disease. Consider also that just because the symptoms have gone away, it doesn’t mean the infection is completely cured. People who have had gonorrhea and have been treated can get the disease again if they have sexual contact with persons infected with gonorrhea.
Keep in mind that the first step toward treating gonorrhea is to get tested for it.
How Can Gonorrhea be Prevented?
The surest way to avoid transmission of STDs is to abstain from sexual intercourse or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected.
Latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, can reduce the risk of transmission of gonorrhea.
Any genital symptoms such as discharge or burning during urination or an unusual sore or rash should be a signal to stop having sex and to get tested immediately. If a person has been diagnosed and treated for gonorrhea, he or she should notify all recent sex partners so they can be tested and be treated. 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 re-infected. The person and all of his or her sex partners must avoid sex until they have completed their treatment for gonorrhea.
If you have additional questions, or you would like to schedule a test, please contact us. Calls are always confidential.
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