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Gonorrhea Symptoms

Gonorrhea Signs and Symptoms and How They're Treated

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Updated December 11, 2010

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Part two in our four-part series on sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) talks about the STD gonorrhea. Caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae, gonorrhea infects about 700,000 people in the United States each year. Unfortunately, only about half of those infections are reported to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), making gonorrhea prevention and treatment much more difficult. Let's take a closer look at the infection and review gonorrhea signs and symptoms.

How Does Gonorrhea Infection Occur?

Anyone who is sexually active can become infected with gonorrhea. The bacteria that causes gonorrhea loves to grow in warm moist areas such as the vagina, anus, urinary tract, mouth, and throat. Gonorrhea is spread from one person to another by contact during sexual activity or from infected mother to baby during childbirth. Keep in mind that ejaculation of semen is not necessary for infection to occur. Another important fact to keep in mind is that people who have been previously treated for a gonorrhea infection can be infected again if they come in contact with a person infected with gonorrhea.

What Are the Symptoms of Gonorrhea?

The one fact that makes gonorrhea prevention so tough is that many people are unaware of their infection. Without symptoms, people unknowingly spread their infection to others. However, gonorrhea symptoms do sometimes emerge, typically within a week of exposure, and varying depending on the part of the body infected.

Men

  • burning with urination
  • a white, green, or yellow discharge from the penis
  • painful and swollen testicles
  • itching, bleeding, and discharge from the rectum
  • painful bowel movements
  • sore throat
Women
  • pain or burning with urination
  • vaginal discharge
  • vaginal bleeding between periods
  • itching, bleeding, or discharge from the rectum
  • painful bowel movements
  • sore throat
Women frequently have only minor symptoms if they occur at all. The diagnosis of infection depends mainly on a vaginal culture.

How is Gonorrhea Diagnosed and Treated?

Any doctor can test you for gonorrhea, diagnose it, and prescribe the medicine to treat it. If you're not comfortable talking to your regular doctor about STDs, consider going to a free clinic where you can be tested and treated anonymously. There are several antibiotics that can successfully treat gonorrhea. However, gonorrhea strains that are resistant to conventional antibiotics are becoming more common, making it much more difficult to treat the STD. A person with a gonorrhea infection may also have another STD called chlamydia. If gonorrhea and chlamydia are both present, both infections need to be treated simultaneously with appropriate antibiotics.

Important Warning!
If gonorrhea is not completely treated it can cause other serious and permanent illnesses including:

  • Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) - an infection of the uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes.
  • Ectopic Pregnancy - a dangerous pregnancy where the fertilized egg attaches to structures outside the womb.
  • Epididymitis - an infection of the epididymis, the coiled structure behind the testes where sperm matures and is stored.
  • Various blood and joint infections.

Preventing Gonorrhea

Like any STD including HIV, using latex condoms correctly decreases the risk of getting infected with gonorrhea. If a gonorrhea infection does occur, sexual activity must be avoided during treatment. If a gonorrhea infection is diagnosed the person should be tested for other STDs including syphilis, chlamydia, and HIV.

How Does a Gonorrhea Infection Affect Your Partner?

When a person is diagnosed with gonorrhea, they must inform all of their recent sexual partners that the partner may have been exposed to gonorrhea. In fact, gonorrhea is a reportable infection, meaning the positive gonorrhea test result is automatically sent to the local health department who in turn notifies any people potentially exposed by the infected individual. Anyone thought to be exposed should be tested and treated.

Like any STD, prevention is the key to stopping the spread of gonorrhea. Latex condoms should be used with each anal, oral, and vaginal sexual contact. If you think you may have been exposed; have symptoms you think may be gonorrhea; or have been notified by your local health department that you may have been exposed; contact your provider right away. Early treatment prevents gonorrhea from progressing to more serious conditions.

Sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Sexually Transmitted Diseases Treatment Guidelines", 2006. MMWR 2006; 55 (No. RR-11). www.cdc.gov/std/treatment

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance, 2006. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, November 2007.

Hook EW III and Handsfield HH. Gonococcal infections in the adult. In: K. Holmes, P. Sparling, P. Markh et al (eds). Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 3rd Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999, 451-466.

Weinstock H, Berman S, Cates W. Sexually transmitted disease among American youth: Incidence and prevalence estimates, 2000. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 2004; 36: 6-10.

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