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, throat and eyes. Gonorrhea infections can be cured with antibiotics, and there are ways to reduce the chances of getting or passing on gonorrhea, such as using a new condom correctly 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.
Some 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 most commonly infects the genitals, rectum, throat and eyes. 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 usually take two to seven days to appear. Common symptoms vary depending on where the infection is.
Some common symptoms are:
- Gonorrhea in 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.
- Gonorrhea in the rectum or anus can cause anal itching, discharge from the anus, painful bowel movements or the feeling of needing to have a bowel movement.
- Gonorrhea in the throat or mouth can cause a sore throat.
- Gonorrhea in the eye can cause an eye infection (conjunctivitis) causing itchy, swollen eyelids, bloodshot eyes (“pink eye”), and white, yellow or greenish discharge that may crust over the eye
If it is not treated, gonorrhea may lead to infertility, abdominal pain or pregnancy complications.
Untreated gonorrhea in the eye can damage vision.
Am I at risk of getting 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 insertive vaginal and anal sex.
Although less common, gonorrhea can also be passed on:
- when a person with gonorrhea in their mouth or throat gives oral sex to someone
- when a person gives oral sex to a person with gonorrhea in the genitals
- through oral-anal contact (rimming)
- through sharing sex toys or during a hand job or fingering if fluids with gonorrhea in them get onto the toy or hand
Gonorrhea can be passed from a pregnant parent to their child during childbirth (delivery).
Gonorrhea and HIV
Having gonorrhea can cause the amount of HIV in the genital and rectal fluids of a person with HIV to increase. This can increase the risk of sexual transmission of HIV. However, evidence shows that people living with HIV who are on effective HIV treatment do not pass on HIV sexually, even when they or their partners have an STI, including gonorrhea.
What can I do?
Reduce your chances of getting gonorrhea
- Use a condom during insertive vaginal and anal sex
- Use a condom or oral dam during oral sex
- When sharing a sex toy, wash the sex toy and put a new condom on it between each use
There is no vaccine approved to protect against gonorrhea.
HIV PrEP does not prevent the transmission of gonorrhea.
The only way to know for sure whether or not you have gonorrhea is to get tested.
You should get tested if you experience symptoms of gonorrhea or if you have a current or recent sex partner diagnosed with gonorrhea.
Consider getting tested if you:
- have condomless oral, anal or vaginal sex
- have had multiple sex partners within the last 12 months
- have had sex with someone from, or who has visited, an area where gonorrhea is common
- have, or have had another STI
- are pregnant or planning to become pregnant
A healthcare provider can do the test. The test involves a swab of the genitals, rectum or throat or a urine (pee) sample. Tell the healthcare provider about all the kinds of sex you are having so they can test the appropriate parts of your body.
It is a good idea to get tested for other STIs, including HIV, when you get tested for gonorrhea. Many 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 healthcare provider or public health staff person will talk to you about informing your sex partners that they might have been exposed to gonorrhea, and encourage them to get tested. If you aren’t comfortable or able to notify your sex partners, a healthcare provider or public health staff member will contact them, and your identity will not be revealed.
Gonorrhea can be cured with “dual-treatment”, using two different antibiotics in combination. One is taken orally (as a pill) as a single dose; the other is given by injection, also in a single dose. However, treatment guidelines 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.
After you are cured of one gonorrhea infection, you cannot pass it on to someone else. But you can get another gonorrhea infection in the future, and pass this on.
These key messages were developed in partnership with the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN).
Gonorrhea – CATIE fact sheet