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Gonorrhoea: Everything You Need To Know

person holds hands over genitals

Gonorrhoea is the second most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the UK after chlamydia, however, it’s becoming a growing public health concern.

According to The UK Health Security Agency, gonorrhoea diagnoses from January to September 2022 were found to be 21% higher than those reported over the same period in 2019. 

Here, Dr Elizabeth Rogers, Associate Clinical Director at Bupa Health Clinics, shares everything you need to know about this infection.

What is gonorrhoea?

Gonorrhoea is caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae which is spread through sexual contact. It affects both men and women and can infect the throat, rectum, and genitals.

The bacteria that cause gonorrhoea thrive in warm, moist areas of the body, making the genitals and rectum ideal places for the infection to take hold.

Symptoms of gonorrhoea

Some people with gonorrhoea may not experience any symptoms, meaning they may be completely unaware they have the infection and pass it on to others through sexual activity. 

Noticeable symptoms usually appear within two to ten days of infection. Common gonorrhoea symptoms can include:

  • A burning sensation when you pee
  • A white, green, or yellow pus-like discharge from your penis, vagina or rectum
  • Discomfort or swelling of the testicles
  • Bleeding between periods or after sexual activities
  • Pain in the lower tummy during sexual activity

If you develop a gonorrhoea infection in your throat, you might have a sore throat or tonsillitis or no symptoms at all. If you get the infection in your eyes, it can cause conjunctivitis. A gonorrhoea infection in your rectum can lead to pain, discomfort, itching and discharge in that area.

How is gonorrhoea diagnosed?

If you suspect that you have gonorrhoea, it is important to get tested as soon as possible. Testing for gonorrhoea involves a urine sample or swab from the affected area, depending on where the infection is suspected. Testing is usually carried out at a sexual health clinic or GP surgery.

It’s possible to be diagnosed with gonorrhoea within a few days of having sex -especially if you have symptoms, but if you have no symptoms it can be best to wait up to two weeks after the last sexual contact before performing the test.

This is because tests may not reliably detect a very early infection, and testing too early may confirm a false result (i.e. your test result may be negative when you are actually infected). 

Treating gonorrhoea

Gonorrhoea can be treated with antibiotics, but it is becoming increasingly resistant to some of the most common drugs used to treat it. This means that it is important to get regularly tested and treated early before the infection has a chance to spread or become resistant to antibiotics. 

With effective treatment, symptoms should improve within a few days. You may be asked to attend a clinic for repeat gonorrhoea testing within two weeks of your treatment to ensure the infection has definitely cleared.

Preventing gonorrhoea

The best way to prevent gonorrhoea is to practice safe sex. This means using a condom every time you have sex. 

 There are many things you can do to lower the risk of getting or passing on gonorrhoea:

  • The most important way to help reduce your risk is getting regularly tested for STIs, especially if you’ve recently started having sex with someone new or practising casual sex with multiple partners.
  • Use male or female condoms during vaginal, oral, or anal sex.
  • During oral sex, you can use a latex square (dental dam) between the rectum or vaginal opening, helping to cover the area around it.
  • If you share sex toys, wash them well or cover them with a new condom before anyone else uses them.
  • Before you have unprotected sex with somebody new, have a test for gonorrhoea and other STIs.

If you’re diagnosed with gonorrhoea, it’s important to let any current and recent sexual partners know – the treatment clinic can do this for you, keeping your details confidential. 

Complications caused by gonorrhoea

Gonorrhoea can cause a range of problems if left untreated. Here are some of the complications you need to be aware about:

  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID): If the infection spreads to the pelvic area in women it can lead to chronic pain, infertility and an increase of ectopic pregnancy.
  • Disseminated gonococcal infection (DGI): This occurs when the bacteria spreads to your joints, blood or heart, causing fever, skin rash, joint pain or arthritis.
  • Infertility: The infection can cause scarring and damage to the reproductive organs, which can lead to infertility in men and women.
  • Epididymitis: Inflammation in the area of the testicles where the sperm ducts are located, causing swelling, fever, pain and can lead to infertility in men.
  • Prostatitis: An inflammation of the prostate gland, which can cause pain and discomfort during urination and ejaculation.
  • Increased risk of HIV: Gonorrhoea infections can lead to inflammation and open sores, making it easier for HIV to enter the body.
  • Eye infections: Conjunctivitis is a possible outcome if infected semen or vaginal fluid gets into your eyes. Newborn babies who are exposed to an infection during delivery may become infected. If the baby is not treated early, there’s a risk of progressive and permanent vision damage.

Early treatment of gonorrhoea can help prevent complications. If you are worried or starting a new sexual relationship, you should speak to a GP or visit your local sexual health clinic to get tested – whether or not you have symptoms.