In 1997, health care workers reported 324,901 cases of gonorrhea in the
United States to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The
Institute of Medicine, however, estimates that 800,000 cases of gonorrhea occur
annually in the United States. Health economists estimate that the annual cost
of gonorrhea and its complications is close to $1.1 billion.
Gonorrhea is spread during sexual intercourse – vaginal, oral, and anal.
People who practice anal intercourse can get gonorrhea of the rectum. Even women
who do not engage in anal intercourse can get gonorrhea of the rectum if the
bacteria are spread from the vaginal area.
Infected women can pass gonorrhea to their newborn infants during delivery,
causing eye infections in their babies. This complication is rare because
newborn babies receive eye medicine to prevent infection. When the infection
occurs in the genital tract, mouth, or rectum of a child, it is due most
commonly to sexual abuse.
What Are the Symptoms of Gonorrhea?
The early symptoms of gonorrhea often are mild. Symptoms usually appear
within two to 10 days after sexual contact with an infected partner. A small
number of people may be infected for several months without showing symptoms.
When women have symptoms, the first ones include:
|bleeding associated with vaginal intercourse; |
|a painful or burning sensation when urinating; and/or |
|vaginal discharge that is yellow or bloody. |
More advanced symptoms, which indicate development of PID, include cramps and
pain, bleeding between menstrual periods, vomiting, or fever.
Men have symptoms more often than women. Symptoms include:
|pus from the penis and pain, or |
|a burning sensation during urination that may be severe. |
Symptoms of rectal infection include discharge, anal itching, and occasional
painful bowel movements with fresh blood on the feces.
How is Gonorrhea Diagnosed?
Doctors or other health care workers usually use three laboratory techniques
to diagnose gonorrhea: staining biological samples directly for the bacterium,
detection of bacterial genes or nucleic acid (DNA) in urine, and growing the
bacteria in laboratory cultures. Many doctors prefer to use more than one test
to increase the chance of an accurate diagnosis.
The staining test involves placing a smear of the discharge from the penis or
the cervix on a slide and staining the smear with a dye. Then the doctor uses a
microscope to look for bacteria on the slide. You usually can get the test
results while in the office or clinic. This test is quite accurate for men but
is not good in women. Only one in two women with gonorrhea have a positive
More often, doctors use urine or cervical swabs for a new test that detects the
genes of the bacteria. These tests are as accurate or more so than culturing the
bacteria, and many doctors use them.
The culture test involves placing a sample of the discharge onto a culture plate
and incubating it up to two days to allow the bacteria to multiply. The
sensitivity of this test depends on the site from which the sample is taken.
Cultures of cervical samples detect infection approximately 90 percent of the
The doctor also can take a culture to detect gonorrhea in the throat. Culture
allows testing for drug-resistant bacteria.
How is Gonorrhea Treated?
Doctors usually prescribe a single dose of one of the following antibiotics
to treat gonorrhea:
If you have gonorrhea and are pregnant or are younger than 18 years old, you
should not take ciprofloxacin or ofloxacin. Your doctor can prescribe the best
and safest antibiotic for you.
Gonorrhea and chlamydial infection, another common STD, often infect people at
the same time. Therefore, doctors usually prescribe a combination of
antibiotics, such as ceftriaxone and doxycycline or azithromycin, which will
treat both diseases.
If you have gonorrhea, all of your sexual partners should get tested and then
treated if infected, whether or not they have symptoms of infection.
What Can Happen if Gonorrhea is Not Treated?
In untreated gonorrhea infections, the bacteria can spread up into the
reproductive tract, or more rarely, can spread through the blood stream and
infect the joints, heart valves, or the brain.
The most common result of untreated gonorrhea is PID, a serious infection of the
female reproductive organs. Gonococcal PID often appears immediately after the
menstrual period. PID causes scar tissue to form in the fallopian tubes. If the
tube is only partially scarred, the fertilized egg cannot pass into the uterus.
If this happens, the embryo may implant in the tube causing a tubal pregnancy.
This serious complication results in a miscarriage and can cause death of the
mother. Rarely, untreated gonorrhea can spread through the blood to the joints.
If you are infected with gonorrhea, your risk of getting HIV infection increases
(HIV, human immunodeficiency virus, causes AIDS). Therefore, it is extremely
important for you to either prevent yourself from getting gonorrhea or get
treated early if you already are infected with it.
Can Gonorrhea Affect a Newborn Baby?
If you are pregnant and have gonorrhea, you may give the infection to your
baby as it passes through the birth canal during delivery. A doctor can prevent
infection of your baby's eyes by applying silver nitrate or other medications to
the eyes immediately after birth. Because of the risks from gonococcal infection
to both you and your baby, doctors recommend that pregnant women have at least
one test for gonorrhea during pregnancy.
How Can I Prevent Getting Infected With Gonorrhea?
By using male latex condoms correctly and consistently during vaginal or
rectal sexual activity, you can reduce your risk of getting gonorrhea and its