Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted infection (STI), also known as a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Gonorrhea is caused by a bacterium that infects 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 vaginal, oral or anal sex. But babies of infected mothers can be infected during childbirth. In babies, gonorrhea most commonly affects the eyes.
Abstaining from sex, using a condom if you have sex and being in a mutually monogamous relationship are the best ways to prevent sexually transmitted infections.
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Male reproductive system
Male reproductive system
The male reproductive system makes, stores and moves sperm. Testicles produce sperm. Fluid from the seminal vesicles and prostate gland combine with sperm to make semen. The penis ejaculates semen during sexual intercourse.
Female reproductive system
Female reproductive system
The ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix and vagina (vaginal canal) make up the female reproductive system.
In many cases, gonorrhea infection causes no symptoms. Symptoms, however, can affect many sites in your body, but commonly appear 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
- 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 can cause eye pain, sensitivity to light, and pus-like discharge from one or both eyes.
- Throat. Signs and symptoms of a throat infection might 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 might be warm, red, swollen and extremely painful, especially during movement.
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.
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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.
Sexually active women younger than 25 and men who have sex with men are at increased risk of getting gonorrhea.
Other factors that can increase your risk include:
- Having a new sex partner
- Having a sex partner who has other partners
- Having more than one sex partner
- Having had gonorrhea or another sexually transmitted infection
Untreated gonorrhea can lead to major complications, such as:
- Infertility in women. Gonorrhea can spread into the uterus and fallopian tubes, causing pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID can result in scarring of the tubes, greater risk of pregnancy complications and infertility. PID requires immediate treatment.
- Infertility in men. Gonorrhea can cause a small, coiled tube in the rear portion of the testicles where the sperm ducts are located (epididymis) to become inflamed (epididymitis). Untreated epididymitis can 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.
To reduce your gonorrhea risk:
- Use a condom if you 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.
- Limit your number of sex partners. Being in a monogamous relationship in which neither partner has sex with anyone else can lower your risk.
- Be sure you and your partner are tested for sexually transmitted infections. Before you have sex, get tested and share your results with each other.
- Don't have sex with someone who appears to have a sexually transmitted infection. 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 sexually active women younger than 25 and for older women at increased risk of infection. This includes women who have a new sex partner, more than one sex partner, a sex partner with other 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 getting gonorrhea again, abstain from sex until after you and your sex partner have completed treatment and after symptoms are gone.