Previously known as "the clap," gonorrhea is actually a very common sexually transmitted disease (STD). In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that there are 700,000 new cases of gonorrhea each year, although only about half of these will be reported.
While anyone can become infected with gonorrhea, some 75% of reported cases are attributed to people between the ages of 15 and 29. In particular, women between the ages of 15 and 19 and men between the ages of 20 and 24 are most at risk of contracting this infectious disease.
What is gonorrhea? Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that is caused by a bacterial infection brought on by Neisseria gonorrhoeae, a bacterium that thrives in warm, moist areas of the reproductive tract. In women, this includes the cervix, the uterus and the fallopian tubes. Gonorrhea can also breed in the urethra of both women and men, as well as in the mouth, throat, eyes and anus.
How is gonorrhea transmitted? As with most STDs, gonorrhea is primarily spread through vaginal, anal or oral sex. It is important to note, however, that ejaculation is not necessary for transmission to occur. In addition, people who have been treated for gonorrhea can become infected again if they have sexual contact with someone with the disease.
What are the symptoms of gonorrhea? In general, the symptoms of gonorrhea will take anywhere between two and ten days to become visible- although visible signs can take as long as 30 days to appear. For women, the first area to become noticeably infected is usually the cervix. From there, the infection moves up into the uterus and subsequently, into the fallopian tubes. However, women are also much more likely than men to be asymptomatic- in other words, it's much more common that women won't experience any symptoms at all. In fact, as many as 50% of women with gonorrhea do not experience any apparent symptoms of the disease. If they do develop symptoms, they are likely to include:
- bleeding after sex
- pain or burning sensation when urinating
- need to urinate more frequently
- vaginal discharge that is yellow or bloody
- bleeding between periods
- nausea or vomiting
In men, gonorrhea symptoms include an unusual white, yellow or green discharge from the penis, which is often accompanied by pain, a burning sensation when urinating and swollen testicles. If the infection is in the rectum, symptoms will include discharge, anal itching and painful bowel movements. You may also have bloody stool.
If infected in the oral cavity, symptoms will likely include a sore throat and/or a puss-like substance on the tonsils or back of the throat. It is important that these symptoms be treated as soon as possible as gonorrhea can easily spread to other parts of the body.
How is gonorrhea treated? Luckily, gonorrhea can be treated, and can normally be cured with a single dose of certain antibiotics. Of course, depending on your age and whether or not you are pregnant, some antibiotics may not be suitable to take. Unfortunately, however, drug-resistant strains of gonorrhea have become increasingly common in the U.S. and around the globe, complicating the treatment of this infection.
It is also important to note that because it is common for people to be infected with both gonorrhea and Chlamydia at the same time, gonorrhea treatment often includes treatment for Chlamydia as well. While these medications can clear up the infection, it cannot undo any damage gonorrhea may have already caused to your reproductive system prior to treatment.
What risks does gonorrhea present if left untreated? If left untreated, gonorrhea can lead to infertility in both men and women. In women, untreated gonorrhea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which increases the risk of ectopic pregnancy and infertility. In men, untreated gonorrhea often leads to inflammation of the testicles (epididymitis), which can also lead to infertility. The infection can also spread to the rest of the body and cause joint inflammation as well as infect the heart valves and/or the brain.
Who is at risk for contracting gonorrhea? People who practice unsafe sex (i.e. do not use condoms during vaginal, anal or oral sex); who have multiple sex partners, or whose partners have multiple sex partners; have a history of sexually transmitted diseases; and those under the age of 30 are at increased risk of being infected with gonorrhea.
Can gonorrhea be prevented? Practicing abstinence or having sex within a monogamous relationship with someone who has tested free from gonorrhea are the most effective ways of preventing infection. Using latex condoms consistently and correctly every time you have sex can also help to reduce the risk of infection. If you have previously been infected with gonorrhea, it is important to take precautionary measures in order to avoid a subsequent infection. In addition, women who are pregnant should be tested for gonorrhea at least once during their pregnancy.