What is Gonorrhoea?
Gonorrhoea is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by Neisseria gonorrhoea, a bacterium. After genital chlamydia, gonorrhoea is the second most common bacterial STI in the UK. It occasionally causes serious complications.
Who gets gonorrhoea?
Anyone who has sex can get gonorrhoea. The people most at risk are those having unprotected sexual intercourse (i.e. not using a condom), especially those with more than one sexual partner and those who frequently change partners.
How do you catch gonorrhoea?
Gonorrhoea is a sexually transmitted infection. It is caught through unprotected vaginal, oral or anal intercourse or genital contact with an infected partner. An infected person may have no symptoms, but still transmit the infection without knowing. Gonorrhoea cannot be caught by casual contact (toilet seats, swimming pools, saunas). A pregnant woman can pass infection onto her new-born baby during delivery.
How do you know you have gonorrhoea?
- The early signs of gonorrhoea are often mild and many young women and some young men show no symptoms and so can be unaware of their infection.
- Symptoms in young women can include a painful and burning sensation when passing urine and discharge from the vagina that is yellow or bloody. These symptoms appear two to ten days after becoming infected.
- Young men more frequently show signs of infection than young women. Typical symptoms include a discharge from the penis and a severe burning when passing urine.
- Men and women with rectal infections may experience discharge from the anus, anal discomfort and pain on anal intercourse.
How serious is gonorrhoea?
Gonorrhoea can have especially serious effects for young women if left untreated.
Young women with gonorrhoea can develop pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). This occurs when the bacteria spread up from the vagina and cervix to damage the reproductive tubes leading to the ovaries. Once established, PID is hard to treat. PID can result in chronic abdominal pain and pain during intercourse. It can also lead to infertility. The most severe complication is ectopic pregnancy, when the embryo starts to grow in the reproductive tube instead of the uterus. This can be fatal when the reproductive tube ruptures, because it cannot expand to accommodate the developing baby. A few women die from ectopic pregnancy in the UK each year.
An infected woman can pass the bacteria on to the baby during delivery causing it to be born with neonatal conjunctivitis (inflammation of the lining of the eye). However, this can be treated.
Rarely, untreated gonorrhoea can spread to the blood stream or the joints. This occurs in both men and women.
How can you protect yourself against gonorrhoea?
Sexually active young men and women can reduce their risk of gonorrhoea by reducing the number of their sexual partners and using condoms correctly and consistently during sexual intercourse.
How can you diagnose gonorrhoea?
Gonorrhoea can usually be diagnosed by a swab taken from the penis or cervix (neck of the womb).
Testing for sexual infections is often best done in sexual health clinics, which have the equipment and facilities for testing treating sexual partners.
Clinics are completely confidential and will not inform GPs of results unless specifically requested to do so. You can attend one of these clinics at any Some GPs, Family Planning Clinics and young people's clinics now also offer testing.
A person with suspected gonorrhoea should also be tested for other STIs which may be present without symptoms.
How can you treat gonorrhoea?
As a bacterial infection, gonorrhoea can usually be treated with an antibiotic. This is now often given as a single dose. However, there are many strains of gonorrhoea and some are now resistant to the commonly used antibiotics.
All current and recent sexual partners of a person with gonorrhoea should be tested and treated to prevent re-infection and the further spread of disease. Treatment is offered whether or not they show any signs of infection.