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What is gonorrhea?

Gonorrhea is a common sexually transmitted disease. Popular names for gonorrhea are clap, drip, dose, and strain.

How does it occur?

Gonorrhea is caused by bacteria. The infection is passed from person to person during sex. It is very contagious. The bacteria can enter the body through any body opening, such as the mouth, vagina, penis, or rectum.

In women, the infection usually starts in the cervix. (The cervix is the opening of the uterus inside the vagina.) The bacteria may also infect the throat or rectum during oral or anal sex.

What are the symptoms?

Many women infected with gonorrhea don’t have any symptoms. If you do have symptoms, they usually start 2 to 10 days after you were exposed to the disease. Symptoms of gonorrhea include:

  • thick, creamy, yellow discharge from the vagina
  • burning or pain when you urinate
  • bleeding or spotting between periods
  • menstrual periods that are heavier than usual
  • pain in your belly
  • pain during sex
  • fever.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your recent medical history, including sexual activity. Important questions are whether you use condoms or other forms of birth control and whether your partner might have other sexual partners.

You should have an abdominal and pelvic exam to see where the infection may have spread. Your healthcare provider will be able to tell if your uterus, ovaries, or fallopian tubes are tender and possibly infected.

Other infections can cause symptoms similar to gonorrhea. Tests of urine or discharge from the cervix will be done to check for gonorrhea and other infections.

How is it treated?

Gonorrhea is treated with antibiotic medicine, usually given as a shot. Many people with gonorrhea also have chlamydia (another sexually transmitted disease). Because of this, you may be given more than 1 medicine so that both infections are treated.

If the infection has spread to your uterus and ovaries, then you may need IV (intravenous) medicines. You may get the medicine as either an outpatient or in the hospital.

Tell your sexual partner or partners about their risk of infection. They should also be treated even if they don’t have symptoms.

Cases of gonorrhea are required by law to be reported to the local health department. The clinic staff will ask about your sexual partners. They will be told that they have had contact with someone who has gonorrhea. This will help them get prompt treatment for the infection. (Your name will not be given.) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) follow these infections so they can find epidemics in the early stages. This allows the CDC to take steps to prevent new infections and to get as many people as possible checked and treated.

How long will the effects last?

If only the cervix is infected, proper treatment should clear up the infection in about 10 days.

If it is not treated, gonorrhea can spread through the uterus to the fallopian tubes and ovaries, causing pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID can cause:

  • abdominal pain
  • infertility (a loss of the ability to have children)
  • a higher risk of tubal pregnancy, which is a pregnancy outside the uterus (a dangerous condition requiring emergency surgery)

Gonorrhea that is not treated may spread into the bloodstream and other parts of the body.

  • It may infect the joints and cause pain and swelling (arthritis).
  • It may spread to the brain and cause meningitis.
  • It may infect the heart, causing endocarditis.

It might cause death.

A baby can be infected during childbirth if the mother has gonorrhea. When the baby passes through the birth canal, the bacteria can infect the baby’s eyes.

How can I take care of myself?

  • Follow the full treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. If you are pregnant, ask if there are any special precautions you should take.
  • Take aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen for pain.
    • Check with your healthcare provider before you give any medicine that contains aspirin or salicylates to a child or teen. This includes medicines like baby aspirin, some cold medicines, and Pepto-Bismol. Children and teens who take aspirin are at risk for a serious illness called Reye’s syndrome.
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, do not take for more than 10 days for any reason.
  • Tell everyone with whom you have had sex in the last 3 months about your infection. They also need to be treated, even if they don’t have any symptoms. Don’t have sex until both you and your partner have finished all of the medicine and your provider says it’s OK. Then always use condoms every time you have sex.
  • Follow your provider’s instructions for follow-up visits and tests. Your provider may need to make sure that the infection is gone.
  • Call your provider right away if:
    • You start having severe pain in your belly.
    • You have a fever over 101.5°F (38.6°C).
    • You feel you are getting sicker instead of better.
  • Ask your provider if you have been tested for other sexually transmitted diseases that you may have gotten when you were infected with gonorrhea.
  • If you have finished all of your antibiotic medicine but still have symptoms, tell your healthcare provider.

How can I prevent the spread of gonorrhea?

  • Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions.
  • Tell everyone with whom you have had sex in the last 3 months about your infection. Or you can ask the clinic staff to tell them. Your name will not be used. Your sexual contacts need to be treated even if they don’t have any symptoms. Don’t have sex until both you and your partner have finished all of the medicine and your provider says it’s OK.
  • Take all of your antibiotics.
  • Don’t have sex until your provider says it’s OK.
  • Always use condoms during foreplay and oral, vaginal, and anal sex.

How can I help prevent gonorrhea?

  • Reduce the risk of infection by always using latex or polyurethane condoms during foreplay and vaginal, oral, or anal sex.
  • Have just 1 sexual partner who is not sexually active with anyone else. Make sure your partner has been tested for gonorrhea and other infections.
  • If you have had sex without a condom and are worried that you may have been infected, see your healthcare provider even if you don’t have any symptoms.
  • If you have been raped and are at risk for having been infected, you should be treated to prevent sexually transmitted infections.

Written by David W. Kaplan, MD, and RelayHealth. Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-02-07
Last reviewed: 2011-01-03 This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional. References
Pediatric Advisor 2011.4 Index
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.