What is gonorrhoea?
Gonorrhoea is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by bacteria called Neisseria gonorrhoeae or gonococcus. It used to be known as 'the clap'.
The bacteria are mainly found in discharge from the penis and in vaginal fluid.
Gonorrhoea is easily passed between people through:
- unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex
- sharing vibrators or other sex toys that haven't been washed or covered with a new condom each time they're used
The bacteria can infect the cervix (entrance to the womb), the urethra (tube through which urine passes out of the body), the rectum, and less commonly the throat or eyes.
The infection can also be passed from a pregnant woman to her baby. If you're pregnant and may have gonorrhoea, it's important to get tested and treated before your baby is born. Without treatment, gonorrhoea can cause permanent blindness in a newborn baby.
Gonorrhoea isn't spread by kissing, hugging, sharing baths or towels, swimming pools, toilet seats, or sharing cups, plates and cutlery, because the bacteria can't survive outside the human body for long.
Signs and symptoms
Typical symptoms of gonorrhoea include:
- a thick green or yellow discharge from the vagina or penis
- pain when urinating
- bleeding between periods in women
But around 1 in 10 infected men and almost half of infected women don't experience any symptoms.
Read more about the symptoms of gonorrhoea.
If you have any of the symptoms of gonorrhoea, or you're worried you may have an STI, you should visit a sexual health clinic for a sexual health test.
Gonorrhoea can be easily diagnosed by testing a sample of discharge picked up using a swab. Testing a sample of urine can also be used to diagnose the condition in men.
It's important to get tested as soon as possible, because gonorrhoea can lead to more serious long-term health problems if it's not treated, including pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in women, or infertility.
Gonorrhoea is usually treated with a single antibiotic injection and a single antibiotic tablet. With effective treatment, most of your symptoms should improve within a few days.
It's usually recommended that you attend a follow-up appointment 1 week or 2 after treatment, so another test can be carried out to see if you're clear of infection.
You should avoid having sex until you've been given the all-clear.
Read more about how gonorrhoea is treated.
Anyone who's sexually active can catch gonorrhoea, especially people who change partners frequently or don't use a barrier method of contraception, such as a condom, when having sex.
Previous successful treatment for gonorrhoea doesn't make you immune to catching the infection again.
Gonorrhoea and other STIs can be successfully prevented by using appropriate contraception and taking other precautions, such as:
- using male condoms or female condoms every time you have vaginal sex, or male condoms during anal sex
- using a condom to cover the penis, or a latex or plastic square (dam) to cover the female genitals, if you have oral sex
- not sharing sex toys, or washing them and covering them with a new condom before anyone else uses them
If you're worried you may have an STI, visit a sexual health clinic for advice.
The only way to find out if you have gonorrhoea is to be tested. If you suspect gonorrhoea or any other sexually transmitted infection (STI), it's important not to delay getting tested.
You can be tested even if you don't have any symptoms.
Early diagnosis and treatment of gonorrhoea reduces the risk of any complications developing, such as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) or infection in the testicles. Complications that arise from long-term infection are much more difficult to treat.
Who should get tested
It's recommended you get tested if:
- you or your partner think you have symptoms of gonorrhoea
- you've had unprotected sex with a new partner
- you or your partner have had unprotected sex with other people
- you have another STI
- a sexual partner tells you they have an STI
- during a vaginal examination, your doctor tells you that the cells of your cervix are inflamed or there's discharge
- you're pregnant or planning a pregnancy
Testing for gonorrhoea
There are many different ways to test for gonorrhoea. In many cases, a swab will be used to remove a sample for testing, although men may only be asked to provide a urine sample.
A swab is wiped over parts of the body that may be infected to pick up samples of discharge. This only takes a few seconds and isn't painful, although it may be a little uncomfortable.
The different tests that may be used to detect gonorrhoea in men and women are described below.
For women, a doctor will usually take a swab to collect a sample from the vagina or cervix (entrance to the womb) during an internal examination. In some cases, a sample may also be taken from the urethra (tube that carries urine out of the body).
Sometimes you may be asked to use a swab or tampon to collect a sample from inside your vagina yourself.
Women aren't usually asked to provide a urine sample to check for gonorrhoea, because this is a less accurate test for women.
Men will normally be asked to provide a urine sample, or a swab may be used to remove a sample of discharge from the end of the penis.
If you're asked to provide a urine sample, it's important not to urinate for about 2 hours beforehand, because this can wash the bacteria away and affect the results of the test.
Infections of the rectum, throat and eyes
If there's a possibility that your rectum or throat is infected, the doctor may need to use a swab to collect a sample from these areas.
If you have symptoms of conjunctivitis, such as red, inflamed eyes with discharge, a sample of the discharge may be collected from your eye.
Getting the results
Some clinics may be able to carry out rapid tests, when the doctor can view the sample through a microscope and give you your test results straight away. Otherwise, you'll have to wait to get the results.
Symptoms of gonorrhoea
Symptoms of gonorrhoea usually develop within about 2 weeks of being infected, although they sometimes don't appear until many months later.
About 1 in 10 infected men and half of infected women won't experience any obvious symptoms, which means the condition can go untreated for some time.
Symptoms in women
In women, symptoms of gonorrhoea can include:
- an unusual vaginal discharge, which may be thin or watery and green or yellow in colour
- pain or a burning sensation when passing urine
- pain or tenderness in the lower abdominal area (this is less common)
- bleeding between periods, heavier periods and bleeding after sex (this is less common)
Symptoms in men
In men, symptoms of gonorrhoea can include:
- an unusual discharge from the tip of the penis, which may be white, yellow or green
- pain or a burning sensation when urinating
- inflammation (swelling) of the foreskin
- pain or tenderness in the testicles (this is rare)
Infection in the rectum, throat or eyes
Both men and women can develop an infection in the rectum, eyes or throat by having unprotected anal or oral sex. If infected semen or vaginal fluid comes into contact with the eyes, you can also develop conjunctivitis.
Infection in the rectum can cause discomfort, pain or discharge. Infection in the eyes can cause irritation, pain, swelling and discharge. Infection in the throat usually causes no symptoms.
Seeking medical advice
It's important to be tested for gonorrhoea if you think there's a chance you're infected, even if you have no obvious symptoms or the symptoms have gone away on their own.
If gonorrhoea is left undiagnosed and untreated, you can continue to spread the infection and there's a risk of potentially serious complications, including infertility.
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Gonorrhoea is usually treated with a short course of antibiotics.
Treatment is recommended if:
- tests have shown you have gonorrhoea
- there's a high chance you have gonorrhoea, even though your test results haven't come back yet
- your partner is found to have gonorrhoea
In most cases, treatment involves having a single antibiotic injection (usually in the buttocks or thigh) followed by one antibiotic tablet. It's sometimes possible to have another antibiotic tablet instead of an injection, if you prefer.
If you have any symptoms of gonorrhoea, these will usually improve within a few days, although it may take up to 2 weeks for any pain in your pelvis or testicles to go away completely. Bleeding between periods or heavy periods should improve by the time of your next period.
Attending a follow-up appointment 1 week or 2 after treatment is usually recommended, so another test can be carried out to see if you're clear of infection.
You should avoid having sex until you (and your partner) have been treated and given the all clear, to prevent reinfection or passing the infection on to anyone else.
If your symptoms don't improve after treatment or you think you've been infected again, see your doctor. Treatment may need to be repeated, or you may need further tests to check for other problems.
Gonorrhoea is easily passed on through intimate sexual contact. If you're diagnosed with it, anyone you've recently had sex with may have it too. It's important that your current partner and any other recent sexual partners are tested and treated.