What Is Gonorrhea?

Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by bacteria. It spreads through sexual fluids during various types of sexual contact.

Though gonorrhea isn’t always severe, it can become severe if left untreated. Gonorrhea that goes without treatment can lead to irreversible health conditions in both males and females, including infertility.

This article discusses the symptoms, causes, and available treatments for gonorrhea. 

Person taking a pill

Kinga Krzeminska / Getty Images

Gonorrhea Symptoms

Gonorrhea is asymptomatic in some people, meaning it occurs without symptoms. Typically, females are more likely to experience no symptoms than males.

If a person contracts the bacterial infection and does develop symptoms, some of the most common include:

The symptoms differ depending on sex and what area of the body they affect.

Symptoms in People With Uteruses

People with uteruses are less likely to experience gonorrhea symptoms than men. Along with the symptoms mentioned above, others can include the following:

  • Genital pain before, during, or after sex
  • Bleeding between periods
  • Pain in the lower part of the abdomen
  • Vaginal discharge

Symptoms in People with Penises

People with penises experience gonorrhea symptoms more often than women. When they do, clinical features of the infection can include:

  • Discharge from the urethra
  • Itching in the genital area
  • Pain in the testicles

What Is “Super Gonorrhea”?

Super gonorrhea is the term assigned to gonorrhea that is resistant to treatment. This type of gonorrhea can be treated using antibiotics, but the medication doesn’t always work, and the infection persists.

Gonorrhea in the Throat

If a person performs oral sex on someone infected with gonorrhea, they can get the infection in their throat.

People are more likely to contract oral gonorrhea if they participate in oral-penile contact than oral-vaginal contact. A person with throat gonorrhea can also pass it on through oral sexual contact, causing genital symptoms.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), gonorrhea of the throat is generally asymptomatic. However, it can cause a person to develop a sore throat.

Rectal Gonorrhea

Rectal gonorrhea develops when a person participates in anal sex with someone who has the infection. The symptoms, if they develop, of rectal gonorrhea include:

  • Discharge from the anus
  • Anal itching
  • Soreness in the anal area
  • Bleeding from the anus
  • Pain when having a bowel movement

Gonorrhea in the Eye

Though it is rare, gonorrhea can also infect the eye if someone touches infected bodily fluids and then touches their eyes. Symptoms of eye gonorrhea can include:

  • Red eyes
  • Eye inflammation
  • Swelling of the tissues that line the eyelids
  • Broken blood vessels in the eye
  • White, yellow, or brown discharge from the eyes

Complications of Eye Gonorrhea

Because of the rarity of eye gonorrhea, it often goes undiagnosed for longer than genital gonorrhea. That delayed diagnosis can cause a severe complication to develop, known as gonococcal keratoconjunctivitis. This condition can lead to ulcerative keratitis, a severe eye disorder that can lead to blindness or vision loss.

What Causes Gonorrhea?

The Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacteria cause gonorrhea. This bacteria is spread through bodily fluids during sexual activities, including:

  • Genital sex
  • Anal sex
  • Oral sex
  • Sharing unclean sex toys with others

Though it is rarer, it can also spread through other sexual activities, such as kissing or oral-anal contact in people with the infection in their mouth or throat.

Hand play, such as fisting or fingering, can also spread gonorrhea in some cases.

How You Can’t Get Gonorrhea

Gonorrhea can spread in a variety of ways, but you will not get the infection from:

  • Sitting on public toilet seats
  • Coughing or getting coughed on by someone with gonorrhea
  • Sharing food or drinks with someone who has the infection

Who Has the Highest Risk of Contracting Gonorrhea?

Anyone sexually active runs the risk of contracting gonorrhea if they do not practice safer sex. However, the infection affects certain groups more than others, including:

  • Sexually active teenagers and young adults under the age of 25
  • People of any age who engage in condom-less sex with multiple partners
  • People of any age with sexual partners who have been diagnosed with an STI

How Common Is Gonorrhea?

Gonorrhea is quite common globally; roughly 86.9 million adults contract gonorrhea every year. According to the CDC, 1.6 million new gonorrhea cases occurred in the United States in 2018 alone, affecting nearly half of the country's population between the ages of 15 and 24.  

How Long Can You Have Gonorrhea Without Knowing?

People who contract gonorrhea and experience symptoms do so within two weeks of becoming infected.

As many as 40% of men and 80% of women do not experience symptoms, so it can be easy to go undiagnosed while the condition continues to affect the body.

Because it can be easily missed, you can have gonorrhea for months without noticing it until symptoms of further complications begin to develop. 

How to Test for Gonorrhea

Testing for gonorrhea typically begins with a urine sample or a sample from the cervix if a pelvic exam is performed. Swab tests may also be used. Swabs can be taken from the:

  • Vagina
  • Cervix
  • Penis
  • Rectum
  • Mouth and throat

The swab tests take a sample of bodily fluid from the area to test for gonorrhea bacteria.

At-Home Gonorrhea Tests

Because of its prevalence, many medical companies have made at-home gonorrhea testing available for more accessible diagnostics.

The tests are sent to your home, and you will self-collect a sample of your urine or a swab from the area you believe to be infected.

Why Is an At-Home Test a Good Idea?

Many people who may suspect they have an STI wait a certain period before going to the doctor to get tested. This delay in diagnostics can play a role in more severe health outcomes in people who have gonorrhea. Using at-home testing provides people with an affordable and accessible alternative to staying on top of their sexual health.

When to Get Tested

Anyone who is sexually active should get regular STI screenings done. The time between tests will depend on a person’s own personal circumstances and lifestyle.

According to the CDC, gay and bisexual men should get tested for gonorrhea once per year, and sexually active women who are younger than 25 or have multiple sexual partners should also get tested once per year.

Getting Tested at the First Sign of Symptoms

If you are sexually active and begin to experience any symptoms of gonorrhea, it’s vital to get tested immediately. This can ensure you don’t inadvertently pass the infection on to someone else and reduce your risk of developing severe health consequences caused by gonorrhea.

Gonorrhea Treatment

Because gonorrhea is a bacterial infection, it needs antibiotic treatment. The first-line treatment for the STI is a single-dose injection of ceftriaxone.

If someone cannot take these medications due to an allergy or they have a case of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, they will have to try alternatives, such as:

  • Doxycycline oral
  • Ofloxacin 
  • Cefixime
  • Spectinomycin

When Can You Have Sex Again After Treatment?

After you begin treatment, you should wait at least seven days before having sex again.

If both you and your partner were diagnosed with gonorrhea, you should wait until after you have completed any treatments given to you by a healthcare provider and wait until your symptoms have gone.

To ensure that you have recovered from the gonorrhea infection and that the bacteria is out of your body, you should do a follow-up gonorrhea test three months after treatment. Gonorrhea can recur if you have sex with a person who has it.

Is Gonorrhea Curable?

Gonorrhea is curable with the proper medication. However, because some cases of gonorrhea are resistant to antibiotics, the need for more than one course of therapy is possible.  

Complications of Untreated Gonorrhea

There are several known complications associated with an untreated gonorrhea infection. The long-term effects of an untreated infection with gonorrhea can differ for people with male versus female reproductive organs. However, some are the same, such as:

  • Infertility
  • An increased risk of contracting HIV
  • Long-term pain and inflammation

In people with uteruses, other complications can include:

People with penises with untreated gonorrhea are at risk of:

  • Inflammation of the tube that carries sperm from the testicles (epididymitis)
  • Disseminated gonococcal infection, a potentially life-threatening condition characterized by arthritis, dermatitis, and/or tenosynovitis

What if You Get Gonorrhea While Pregnant?

Having gonorrhea while pregnant can lead to transmission of the infection to the unborn child during delivery.

Gonorrhea infections in newborns can lead to devastating consequences, such as:

  • Blindness
  • Joint infections
  • Life-threatening blood infections
  • Meningitis (swelling of mucous membranes around the brain and spinal cord)
  • Rhinitis (nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing)
  • Vaginitis (inflammation and infection of the vagina)
  • Urethritis (inflammation and infection of the urethra)
  • Scalp infections

Keeping Yourself Safe From Gonorrhea While Pregnant

Practicing safer sex and always using condoms while pregnant can help lower your risk of gonorrhea. That said, if you do become pregnant, the best way to ensure that you are not infected and will not pass it on to your unborn child is by:

  • Getting tested for gonorrhea during your first prenatal visit
  • Getting treated for gonorrhea if you test positive
  • Retesting for gonorrhea throughout your pregnancy roughly every three months and then again at delivery

How to Prevent Gonorrhea

The only way to prevent contracting gonorrhea is by avoiding all types of sexual activity.

However, because that is unreasonable for many people, practicing safer sex and always wearing condoms during all sex acts is essential.

Otherwise, you can reduce your risk of contracting gonorrhea by:

  • Getting tested regularly if you engage in sexual activities with more than one partner
  • Only have sex with someone you’re in a committed and monogamous relationship with, and you have both been tested
  • Avoid sexual contact with partners who have tested positive for gonorrhea until after they have finished their treatment and their symptoms have subsided

Outlook for Gonorrhea

Gonorrhea is often stigmatized because of its transmission process. However, the infection is very common. There is nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about if you contract it.

The good news is that gonorrhea is highly treatable using antibiotics, and you can cure yourself of the infection in as little as one week. It's still important to practice safer sex and prevent the spread of gonorrhea because although there is a cure, the rise in antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea cases has made curing it more difficult.

Medical providers can recommend treatment options for resistant gonorrhea, so it's important to remember that though prevention is best, treatment is possible.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Piszczek J, St. Jean R, Khaliq Y. Gonorrhea: Treatment update for an increasingly resistant organism. Can Pharm J (Ott). 2015 Mar;148(2):82-9. doi:10.1177/1715163515570111

  2. Javanbakht M, Westmoreland D, Gorbach P. Factors associated with pharyngeal gonorrhea in young people: implications for prevention. Sex Transm Dis. 2018 Sep;45(9):588-593. doi:10.1097/OLQ.0000000000000822

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gonorrhea - CDC Detailed Fact Sheet.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gonorrhea - CDC Basic Fact Sheet.

  5. Kumar P. Gonorrhoea presenting as red eye: rare case. Indian J Sex Transm Dis AIDS. 2012 Jan;33(1):47-8. doi:10.4103/0253-7184.93828

  6. Chow EPF, Fairley CK. The role of saliva in gonorrhoea and chlamydia transmission to extragenital sites among men who have sex with men: new insights into transmission. J Int AIDS Soc. 2019 Aug;22 Suppl 6(Suppl Suppl 6):e25354. doi:10.1002/jia2.25354

  7. Unemo M, Seifert HS, Hawkes S, et al. Gonorrhoea. Nat Rev Dis Primers. 2019 Nov 21;5(1):79. doi:10.1038/s41572-019-0128-6

  8. Minnesota Department of Health. What You and Your Partner Should Know About Gonorrhea and Chlamydia.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually Transmitted Infections Treatment Guidelines, 2021: Gonococcal Infections Among Neonates.

By Angelica Bottaro
Angelica Bottaro is a professional freelance writer with over 5 years of experience. She has been educated in both psychology and journalism, and her dual education has given her the research and writing skills needed to deliver sound and engaging content in the health space.