What you need to know about gonorrhea

Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that is most easily passed on during sex without a condom. It can infect the genitals, rectum, mouth and throat. The infection can be cured with antibiotics, and there are ways to lower the chance of getting or passing on gonorrhea, such as using a condom each time you have sex.

The words we use here – CATIE is committed to using language that is relevant to everyone. People use different terms to describe their bodies. This text uses medical terms, such as vagina and penis, to describe genitals. Other people may use other terms, such as private parts or dick or front hole. CATIE acknowledges and respects that people use words that they are most comfortable with.

What is gonorrhea?

Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It can infect the genitals, rectum and throat. A person with gonorrhea can pass it on to another person during sex.

Many people with gonorrhea have no symptoms, so they don’t know they have an infection. When symptoms do occur, they can take 2 to 7 days to appear. Common symptoms vary depending on where the infection is:

  • Infections of the genitals can cause an unusual fluid (or discharge) to come out of the vagina or penis, pain when urinating (peeing), vaginal bleeding, bleeding between periods, painful vaginal sex, swelling or pain in the testicles or pain in the abdomen.
  • Rectal infections can cause anal itching, discharge from the anus, painful bowel movements or the feeling of needing to have a bowel movement.
  • Throat or mouth infections can cause a sore throat.

If it is not treated, gonorrhea may lead to infertility, abdominal pain or pregnancy complications.

Could I get gonorrhea?

Anyone who is sexually active, including people who experience sexual violence, can get gonorrhea.

Gonorrhea is most easily passed on during sex without a condom; this includes vaginal intercourse and anal intercourse.

Although less common, gonorrhea can also be passed on:

  • when a person with the infection in their mouth or throat gives oral sex to another person
  • when a person gives oral sex to a person with an infection of the genitals
  • through oral-anal contact (rimming)
  • through sharing sex toys or during a hand job or fingering if infected fluids get onto the toy or hand

Gonorrhea and HIV

For people with HIV, a gonorrhea infection may increase the amount of HIV in bodily fluids and increase the chance of passing on HIV to sex partners.

Someone who has gonorrhea may be more likely to get HIV if they are exposed to HIV during sex.

What can I do?

Prevent infection

Use a condom during vaginal intercourse and anal intercourse.

Use a condom or oral dam during oral sex.

There is no vaccine to protect against gonorrhea.

Get tested

The only way to know for sure whether or not you have gonorrhea is to get tested. A doctor or nurse can do the test. The test involves a swab of the genitals, rectum or throat or a urine (pee) sample. Tell the doctor or nurse about all the different kinds of sex you are having so they can test all the right parts of your body.

It is a good idea to get tested for other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, when you get tested for gonorrhea. Other STIs can be passed on in the same way as gonorrhea. Talk to your healthcare provider about how often you should test for gonorrhea and other STIs.

If you are diagnosed with gonorrhea, a public health staff person will talk to you about informing your sex partners that they might have been exposed to gonorrhea and encouraging them to get tested. Your identity will not be revealed.

Get treated

Gonorrhea can be cured with a single dose of oral and injected antibiotics, though treatment can vary in different regions. After you have been treated, another test may be performed to ensure that you no longer have gonorrhea. You should wait 7 days after treatment is finished to have sex again.

Once you are cured, you cannot pass on gonorrhea to your sex partners. But you can be infected again. Being treated for gonorrhea does not protect you from getting gonorrhea in the future.

Credits

These key messages were developed in partnership with the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN).

Resource

Gonorrhea CATIE fact sheet