Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted infection (STI or STD) that often causes vaginal or penile discharge but is also often “silent,” meaning people infected with gonorrhea may not have symptoms. When gonorrhea does cause symptoms, they may be easy to ignore.
But it’s important to get tested and treated promptly for gonorrhea. Left untreated, it can cause serious problems, including infertility.
Here’s how to know recognize symptoms so you know when to seek testing and treatment.
What Is Gonorrhea?
Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection that spreads through sexual contact. It cannot spread through objects or from using a toilet. But it can spread through different types of sex, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in five people in the U.S. have an STD. Gonorrhea is one of the more common STDs detected in the United States. What’s especially concerning is that gonorrhea is on the rise in the U.S.
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The symptoms of gonorrhea depend on which part of the body is infected.
In most cases, women with gonorrhea have the infection in their cervix (opening of the womb), and most don’t have symptoms, especially in the early stages. When symptoms from cervical infections do occur, they include:
- Increased vaginal discharge, which may be yellowish or blood-tinged.
- Pain or burning when urinating.
- Bleeding in between periods.
Untreated gonorrhea in women can progress to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), a serious infection in the pelvic organs. Some women might not notice symptoms of PID for many months after the initial infection. Symptoms of PID include:
- Recent pain in the lower abdomen or lower back.
- Fever or chills.
- Increased vaginal discharge.
- Experiencing new or unusual pain during sex.
- Longer or heavier periods.
- Having unusually painful periods.
Infection in the penis
Symptoms of gonorrhea in the penis often appear within a week or two of exposure. They include:
- Discharge from the penis that may be white, yellow, or green.
- Pain or burning when urinating.
- Pain or swelling in the testicles or scrotum (rare).
- Swelling of the foreskin.
Those who have anal sex can get gonorrhea in the anus or rectum. Symptoms include:
- Bleeding or discharge from the anus.
- Painful bowel movements.
In most cases, gonorrhea in the throat doesn’t cause symptoms. In some cases, however, it may cause a sore throat.
Unlike with a cold, a sore throat with gonorrhea may last weeks. You may also see redness at the back of the throat. (But if you see white patches, the cause is most likely strep throat.)
A severe complication of gonorrhea is infertility in both women and men. In women, gonorrhea can travel from the cervix to the uterus and the fallopian tubes and cause a blockage of the fallopian tubes. In men, gonorrhea can narrow or block the opening sperm travels through.
While uncommon, untreated gonorrhea infections can spread through the blood to other parts of the body, including the joints, eyes, and skin.
This type of disseminated gonorrhea can cause pain and swelling in the joints, sores on the skin, and pink eye. In rare cases, disseminated gonorrhea can even cause swelling in the heart or brain.
Testing for Gonorrhea
It may take seven to 21 days after exposure for gonorrhea to show up in testing.
In most cases, gonorrhea testing is free. There are many options for STD testing.
- You can make an appointment with your Primary Care Provider.
- You can make an appointment with the Center for STD Care through UPMC Magee-Womens Virtual Care Center. These consultations are virtual, and providers can order testing or recommend in-person visits as appropriate.
- You can visit the Public Health Clinic at the Allegheny County Health Department or find a testing clinic near you on the CDC’s website.
Health providers can test for gonorrhea by taking a swab from the:
- Urethra, or opening of the penis.
Many people can get tested for gonorrhea with a urine test or a vaginal swab, so an examination might not be necessary, particularly for people who don’t have symptoms of the infection.
Your provider may call or email you with your results. Or they may schedule an appointment to discuss the results.
Doctors treat most cases of gonorrhea with a single injection of an antibiotic called ceftriaxone. Some people can be treated with an oral pill, but the best treatment for gonorrhea is an injection of ceftriaxone. If you are allergic to this antibiotic, your doctors will prescribe another one.
Gonorrhea that has spread to other parts of the body, like the joints, eyes, brain, or heart, will require a longer treatment course. Doctors also suggest longer treatment for men who have an infection that is causing swelling in the testicles. For example, you may have to take pills or get IV antibiotics for more than a week.
If you’re taking oral antibiotics, you will need to complete the entire course to ensure the infection is fully gone. In other words, take all pills as your doctor prescribed, even if you feel better.
Symptoms should go away within a week of treatment. If they don’t, call your doctor to get tested again.
How Can You Prevent the Spread of Gonorrhea?
Here’s how you can prevent gonorrhea, as well as its complications:
- Get tested, and have your partner get tested, before engaging in sex with a new partner.
- Use a condom every time with sex outside of a monogamous relationship.
- Get tested for STDs at least once a year if you’re a sexually active woman under 25.
- Get tested at least once a year if you’re a man who has sex with men.
- Get tested whenever you have symptoms that could be an STD.
- Inform previous sexual partners if you test positive for gonorrhea. Experts recommend you tell all sexual partners from the past 60 days, or your most previous partner if you haven’t had sex within 60 days.
Given that testing and treatment is so easy, and the problems with gonorrhea can be lifelong, getting tested is the right thing to do.
American Sexual Health Association. Gonorrhea: Fast Facts. Link
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC estimates 1 in 5 people in the U.S. have a sexually transmitted infection. Link
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Which STD tests should I get? Link
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gonorrhea – CDC Detailed Fact Sheet. Link
Planned Parenthood. Gonorrhea. Link
Dr. Shahab Quereshi. Gonorrhea treatment and management. Medscape. Link
Drs. Arlene Seña and Myron Cohen. Treatment of uncomplicated Neisseria gonorrhoeae infections. Link
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About UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital
For more than a century, UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital has provided high-quality medical care to women at all stages of life. UPMC Magee is long-renowned for its services to women and babies but also offers a wide range of care to men as well. Our patient-first approach ensures you and your loved ones get the care you need. Nearly 10,000 babies are born each year at Magee, and our NICU is one of the largest in the country. Our network of care – from imaging centers to hospital services – provides care throughout Pennsylvania and Maryland, giving you a chance to get the expert care you need close to home. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recognizes UPMC Magee as a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health, and the Magee-Womens Research Institute is the largest research institute in the U.S. devoted exclusively to women’s health and reproductive biology.