Gonorrhea is an infection caused by a sexually transmitted bacterium that can infect both males and females. Gonorrhea most often affects the urethra, rectum or throat. In females, gonorrhea can also infect the cervix.
Gonorrhea is most commonly spread during sex. But babies can be infected during childbirth if their mothers are infected. In babies, gonorrhea most commonly affects the eyes.
Gonorrhea is a common infection that, in many cases, causes no symptoms. You may not even know that you're infected. Abstaining from sex, using a condom if you do have sex and being in a mutually monogamous relationship are the best ways to prevent sexually transmitted infections.
In many cases, gonorrhea infection causes no symptoms. When symptoms do appear, gonorrhea infection can affect multiple sites in your body, but it commonly appears in the genital tract.
Gonorrhea affecting the genital tract
Signs and symptoms of gonorrhea infection in men include:
- Painful urination
- Pus-like discharge from the tip of the penis
- Pain or swelling in one testicle
Signs and symptoms of gonorrhea infection in women include:
- Increased vaginal discharge
- Painful urination
- Vaginal bleeding between periods, such as after vaginal intercourse
- Painful intercourse
- Abdominal or pelvic pain
Gonorrhea at other sites in the body
Gonorrhea can also affect these parts of the body:
- Rectum. Signs and symptoms include anal itching, pus-like discharge from the rectum, spots of bright red blood on toilet tissue and having to strain during bowel movements.
- Eyes. Gonorrhea that affects your eyes may cause eye pain, sensitivity to light, and pus-like discharge from one or both eyes.
- Throat. Signs and symptoms of a throat infection may include a sore throat and swollen lymph nodes in the neck.
- Joints. If one or more joints become infected by bacteria (septic arthritis), the affected joints may be warm, red, swollen and extremely painful, especially when you move an affected joint.
When to see your doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor if you notice any troubling signs or symptoms, such as a burning sensation when you urinate or a pus-like discharge from your penis, vagina or rectum.
Also make an appointment with your doctor if your partner has been diagnosed with gonorrhea. You may not experience signs or symptoms that prompt you to seek medical attention. But without treatment, you can reinfect your partner even after he or she has been treated for gonorrhea.
Gonorrhea is caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae. The gonorrhea bacteria are most often passed from one person to another during sexual contact, including oral, anal or vaginal intercourse.
Factors that may increase your risk of gonorrhea infection include:
- Younger age
- A new sex partner
- A sex partner who has concurrent partners
- Multiple sex partners
- Previous gonorrhea diagnosis
- Having other sexually transmitted infections
Untreated gonorrhea can lead to significant complications, such as:
- Infertility in women. Untreated gonorrhea can spread into the uterus and fallopian tubes, causing pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which may result in scarring of the tubes, greater risk of pregnancy complications and infertility. PID is a serious infection that requires immediate treatment.
- Infertility in men. Men with untreated gonorrhea can experience epididymitis — inflammation of a small, coiled tube in the rear portion of the testicles where the sperm ducts are located (epididymis). Epididymitis is treatable, but if left untreated, it may lead to infertility.
- Infection that spreads to the joints and other areas of your body. The bacterium that causes gonorrhea can spread through the bloodstream and infect other parts of your body, including your joints. Fever, rash, skin sores, joint pain, swelling and stiffness are possible results.
- Increased risk of HIV/AIDS. Having gonorrhea makes you more susceptible to infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that leads to AIDS. People who have both gonorrhea and HIV are able to pass both diseases more readily to their partners.
- Complications in babies. Babies who contract gonorrhea from their mothers during birth can develop blindness, sores on the scalp and infections.
Take steps to reduce your risk of gonorrhea:
- Use a condom if you choose to have sex. Abstaining from sex is the surest way to prevent gonorrhea. But if you choose to have sex, use a condom during any type of sexual contact, including anal sex, oral sex or vaginal sex.
- Ask your partner to be tested for sexually transmitted infections. Find out whether your partner has been tested for sexually transmitted infections, including gonorrhea. If not, ask whether he or she would be willing to be tested.
- Don't have sex with someone who has any unusual symptoms. If your partner has signs or symptoms of a sexually transmitted infection, such as burning during urination or a genital rash or sore, don't have sex with that person.
Consider regular gonorrhea screening. Annual screening is recommended for all sexually active women less than 25 years of age and for older women at increased risk of infection, such as those who have a new sex partner, more than one sex partner, a sex partner with concurrent partners, or a sex partner who has a sexually transmitted infection.
Regular screening is also recommended for men who have sex with men, as well as their partners.
To avoid reinfection with gonorrhea, abstain from unprotected sex for seven days after you and your sex partner have completed treatment and after resolution of symptoms, if present.