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What Is Gonorrhea?

Gonorrhea (pronounced: gah-nuh-REE-uh) is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by bacteria called Neisseria gonorrhoeae. The bacteria can be passed from one person to another through vaginal, oral, or anal sex, even when the person who is infected has no symptoms.

Gonorrhea also can be passed from a mother to her baby during birth. You can't catch it from a towel, a doorknob, or a toilet seat.

What Are the Signs of Gonorrhea in Girls?

A girl who has gonorrhea may have no symptoms at all or her symptoms may be so mild that she doesn't notice them until they become more severe. In some cases, girls will feel a burning sensation when they pee, or they will have a yellow-green vaginal discharge. Girls also may have vaginal bleeding between menstrual periods.

If the infection spreads and moves into the uterus or fallopian tubes, it may cause an infection called pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID can cause abdominal pain, fever, and pain during sex, as well as the symptoms above.

What Are the Signs of Gonorrhea in Guys?

Guys who have gonorrhea are much more likely to notice symptoms, although a guy can have gonorrhea and not know it. Guys often feel a burning sensation when they pee, and yellowish-white discharge may ooze out of the urethra (at the tip of the penis).

How Long Until There Are Symptoms?

Symptoms usually start 2 to 7 days after a person is exposed to gonorrhea. In girls, they might start even later.

What Problems Can Happen?

Gonorrhea can be very dangerous if it's not treated, even in someone who has mild or no symptoms:

  • In girls, the infection can move into the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries (causing PID) and can lead to scarring and infertility (the inability to have a baby). Gonorrhea infection during pregnancy can cause problems for the newborn baby, including meningitis(an inflammation of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord) and an eye infection that can result in blindness if it is not treated.
  • In guys, gonorrhea can spread to the epididymis (the structure attached to the testicle that helps transport sperm), causing pain and swelling in the testicular area. This can create scar tissue that might make a guy infertile.

In both guys and girls, untreated gonorrhea can affect other organs and parts of the body, including the throat, eyes, heart, brain, skin, and joints, although this is less common.

How Is Gonorrhea Diagnosed?

Doctors now test teens 15 and older for STDs as part of annual checkups, regardless of whether the teens disclose they are having oral, anal, or vaginal sex. This is to make sure that everyone who needs treatment gets it. All teens who are having oral, vaginal, or anal sex should get tested at least once a year for gonorrhea.

If you think you may have gonorrhea or if you have had a partner who may have gonorrhea, you need to see your doctor or gynecologist. He or she will do an exam that may include checking a urine (pee) sample. In some cases, testing may require swabbing of opening of the penis or the vagina or cervix for discharge. Talk to your doctor about which test is best for you.

The doctor also may test for other STDs, such as HIV, syphilis, and chlamydia. Let the doctor know the best way to reach you confidentially with any test results.

How Is Gonorrhea Treated?

If you have gonorrhea, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection. Any sexual partners should also be tested and treated for gonorrhea immediately. This includes any partners in the last 2 months, or your last sexual partner if it has been more than 2 months since you last had sex.

If a sexual partner has gonorrhea, quick treatment will reduce the risk of complications for that person and will lower your chances of being reinfected if you have sex with that partner again. (You can become infected with gonorrhea again even after treatment — having it once doesn't make you immune to it.)

Don't have sex for at least 7 days after you and your partner have both finished taking your antibiotics. If you have sex earlier than that, you could be reinfected.

Can Gonorrhea Be Prevented?

It's better to prevent gonorrhea than to treat it, and the best way to completely prevent the infection is to not have sex (oral, vaginal, or anal).

If you do have sex, use a latex condom every time. This is the only birth control method that will help prevent gonorrhea.

Date reviewed: March 2016