Updated December 2016.
What is gonorrhea?
Gonorrhea is one of the common bacterial sexually transmitted infections (STIs). It is caused by the bacterium neisseria gonorrhoeae and can infect the urethra, mouth, throat, rectum, cervix, uterus, or fallopian tubes. Because the signs of gonorrhea often go unnoticed, an individual can develop serious health complications before they recognize they are infected.
Is it common?
Each year approximately 650,000 people in the US are infected with gonorrhea. Approximately 75% of all reported gonorrhea cases in the US are found in individuals 15 to 29-years-old.
How is it transmitted?
Gonorrhea can be transmitted during vaginal and anal sex and, rarely, through oral sex. During oral sex on a penis, both people can give or get gonorrhea from each other. During oral sex on a vagina, the person giving oral sex would be more likely to be at risk for gonorrhea. Gonorrhea can be transmitted even if there are no signs or symptoms of infection. It can also be passed from an infected mother to a newborn during vaginal childbirth. It is not passed through casual contact.
What are the symptoms?
Gonorrhea can be present in an individual without producing symptoms. 90% of people with vaginas may have no symptoms at all. Often, the first indication may arise when a partner is diagnosed. In people with vaginas, symptoms may include:
Burning during urination
Yellowish-greenish discharge from the vagina
Pain in the pelvic or abdominal area
Unusual vaginal bleeding
Painful sexual activity
Bleeding after sexual activity
Swelling or tenderness of the vulva
People with penises are more likely to have symptoms, but symptoms can also go undetected. In people with penises, symptoms may include:
Burning during urination
Yellowish-white discharge from the penis
Swollen or painful testicles
For all genders, gonorrhea infection may also occur in the throat, causing a minor sore throat or no symptoms at all and may also occur in the rectum, causing pus-like or bloody discharge, anal itching, soreness, bleeding, and sometimes painful bowel movements.
How soon after exposure to gonorrhea will symptoms appear?
If symptoms appear, they usually appear in people with vaginas within 10 days and in people with penises within 2 to 5 days, but can take as long as 30 days to surface. Even if you don't have symptoms, you can spread the infection to others if you don't use condoms or dental dams during sex.
How is it diagnosed?
Your medical provider will take a urine sample or a swab of the cervix, vagina, rectum, urethra, or throat and this will be analyzed by a lab test. You can make an appointment with Health Services or you can contact another testing site in Providence. Click here to see a listing of local STI test sites. If you choose to get tested at Health Services, you can ask your medical provider about testing costs and when you can expect your results back during your appointment.
How is it treated?
Gonorrhea infections are treated with antibiotics. All partners must be treated. Once you are treated you will also need follow-up cultures and an examination. Although it is generally easy to treat, some gonorrhea organisms are becoming resistant to antibiotic drug treatment. Even if symptoms are relieved, it is important to take the entire prescription to make sure the infection is gone. If you are tested at Health Services, you can pick up your antibiotic prescription here at the pharmacy.
If you find out that you are infected with gonorrhea, you should also notify your sex partner(s) so that they can be treated, even if they don't have symptoms. This will reduce the risk of your partner(s) experiencing complications from an infection and will reduce your risk of being re-infected. You should not have sex with your partner(s) until you complete your treatment, and until your partner(s) are tested and receive their treatment.
If you have had gonorrhea in the past and have been treated, you can get the disease again if you have sexual contact with an infected person.
Can gonorrhea infections be dangerous?
If left untreated, gonorrhea may cause sterility, arthritis, and heart problems. In people with vaginas and uteruses, gonorrhea can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and ectopic pregnancy.