Gonorrhoea is caused by bacteria that live in warm, moist parts of the body such as the throat, rectum, penis and vagina. Left untreated, gonorrhoea can cause infertility in both men and women.
Gonorrhoea is also found in infected semen and vaginal fluids.
Symptoms in men usually show within 10 days but it's common for women to have no symptoms.
Gonorrhoea in the penis often causes:
- a yellowish, white or green discharge
- a burning feeling, especially when urinating
- swelling of the foreskin.
In the vagina it can cause:
- a change in the discharge
- a burning feeling when urinating
- bleeding between periods.
Gonorrhoea in the throat is mostly symptom-free.
With gonorrhoea in the rectum there are often no symptoms but there might be discomfort and discharge.
How it's passed on
Gonorrhoea is spread during vaginal, oral or anal sex. It can also be spread by sharing sex toys without washing them or when a new condom is not used for each person.
It may be possible to spread gonorrhoea on fingers when you touch an infected part of the body, then touch other parts of your or someone else’s body.
Gonorrhoea can be passed on via oral sex, so using flavoured condoms or dental dams can help reduce the risk.
Gonorrhoea can also be passed from a mother to her baby during childbirth, which can cause conjunctivitis in the baby’s eyes. A woman can take antibiotics to treat gonorrhoea during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.
It's possible for an adult to get conjunctivitis as a result of their eye coming into contact with gonorrhoea bacteria, but this is rare.
Gonorrhoea tests and treatment
There is a urine test for gonorrhoea, or a sample can be taken from the infected part of your body using a swab (a small cotton bud).
Swabs taken from the rectum, throat and vagina don’t hurt. A swab taken from the inside tip of a man’s penis can be uncomfortable for a second or two.
Gonorrhoea is treated with antibiotics. People you’ve had sex with also need to get checked – a clinic can contact them if you don’t want to. Left untreated, gonorrhoea can cause serious problems, including infertility in men and women.
Recently a strain of so-called super gonorrhoea has been on the rise in England. This strain is resistant to one of the two antibiotics used to treat the infection.
Super gonorrhoea is resistant to azithromycin. However, the other antibiotic used – called ceftriaxone – currently works for the majority of cases, so it’s important to get tested and treated.
Where and when to get tested
Most people get tested and treated for infections such as gonorrhoea at a sexual health (GUM) clinic. It’s free and confidential: no-one else, including your GP, will be told about your visit. Some GP surgeries also test for and treat these infections.
The more people you have sex with (especially unprotected sex), the bigger the chance of getting STIs such as gonorrhoea. It's possible to have them without knowing, so regular check-ups are a good idea – especially if you're starting a new relationship or you want to stop using condoms with your partner.
Gonorrhoea and HIV
Having gonorrhoea can increase the risk of contracting HIV if you come into contact with the virus. Similarly, if you have HIV, untreated gonorrhoea could make it more likely that you’ll pass on HIV during unprotected sex.
However, if HIV drugs have made your viral load undetectable, then gonorrhoea or other infections don’t appear to make you more likely to pass on HIV.