Sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea can be difficult to talk about, but it’s important to discuss them openly in order to understand the risks and treatments. Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent serious illness and protect you from permanent damage.
What is Gonorrhea?
Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that impacts both men and women of all ages. Gonorrhea is caused by bacteria called Neisseria gonorrhoeae. The infection caused by this bacterium is very common. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says almost 600,000 cases of gonorrhea were reported in the US in 2018. However, they estimate that the actual number of sexually transmitted infections of gonorrhea was much higher. While gonorrhea is a very serious sexually transmitted disease that often results in complications like infertility from pelvic inflammatory disease, it is also very treatable with the correct diagnosis and medication.
How is Gonorrhea Spread?
Gonorrhea is most often spread through sexual contact. This includes any sexual contact involving the penis, vagina, anus, or mouth. Anyone who participates in oral sex, anal sex, or vaginal sex with an infected person is at risk of contracting gonorrhea.
Gonorrhea can also be spread from an infected mother to her baby during childbirth. Pregnant women with gonorrhea should talk with their doctor about treatment since the infection not only puts their baby at risk of infection but increases the risk of premature labor and stillbirth if it is left untreated. Gonorrhea most often affects the eyes of a baby during childbirth and can result in blindness, sores on the scalp, and infections. After delivery, the baby will be given eye ointment to prevent the spread of gonorrhea. However, antibiotics may also be needed for the baby if an infection develops.
Am I at Risk for Gonorrhea?
Gonorrhea is most common among teens and young adults. It impacts both males and females, although the reported rate of infection among males is slightly higher. Where you live can be a risk factor as well. The regions of the country with the highest number of reported cases are the South followed by the Midwest. While the prevalence of gonorrhea in your community does increase your odds of contracting the infection, your own sexual behaviors are the most important risk factors. Thankfully, these are risk factors you can control.
Having a new sexual partner or multiple sexual partners puts you at increased risk for gonorrhea. Unprotected sex without the use of a condom (or dental dam for oral sex) puts you at higher risk for infection. Having a previous gonorrhea infection, or another sexually transmitted disease also increases your chances of developing a gonorrhea infection.
How to Lower Your Risk of Gonorrhea
The only way to completely avoid the risk of gonorrhea is to abstain from all sexual contact. However, there are some simple and effective ways of lowering your risk and avoiding infection. Choosing to have sex with only one partner who has been tested and treated for any STDs will help you both avoid infection as well as reinfection. It may feel awkward, but it is important to talk to your partner and ask directly about testing for STDs. You should always avoid having sex with someone who has any symptoms of an STD. When you choose to have sex, use a condom during any type of sexual contact, including anal sex, oral sex or vaginal sex.
What are the Symptoms of Gonorrhea?
Gonorrhea can actually be present without any noticeable symptoms, making regular testing for gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted diseases very important. When symptoms are present, they most commonly impact the genital and/or reproductive tract. Symptoms of gonorrhea in men usually involve pain during urination, white discharge from the tip of the penis, or painful swelling in one testicle.
Symptoms of gonorrhea infection in women include vaginal discharge, painful intercourse, bleeding after intercourse or between periods, painful or frequent urination, fever, vomiting, and pelvic pain or abdominal pain.
Other symptoms for both men and women that may indicate gonorrhea infection has spread to other areas can include itching and pain in the rectum when passing stools, eye pain and discharge, swelling of lymph nodes, sore throat, and swollen, painful joints.
Other Complications from Gonorrhea
An untreated gonorrhea infection may or may not have symptoms, but it can cause significant and permanent damage. When gonorrhea spreads to the reproductive system in women, it can infect the uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes. This infection causes pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in women which is a serious infection and needs immediate treatment. Infertility and complications during pregnancy, including ectopic pregnancy, are results of PID.
Men can also experience infertility as a result of gonorrhea. Epididymitis is an inflammation of a portion of the testicles where the sperm ducts are located. When gonorrhea causes epididymitis, untreated inflammation can impact the production of sperm, causing infertility.
The bacteria that cause gonorrhea can also travel through the bloodstream, infecting other areas of the body. Rash, skin sores, fever, joint pain, and swelling are signs that the gonorrhea infection has spread.
Another serious potential complication of gonorrhea is an increased risk of contracting the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Can Gonorrhea be Cured?
Yes, gonorrhea can typically be cured through the use of antibiotics. Typically both an initial shot of antibiotics as well as a prescription for antibiotic medication to be taken orally will be given. Your doctor will often be able to diagnose gonorrhea simply by testing a urine sample. However, because the infection can occur in multiple locations, a swab sample may be taken from any potentially affected area such as the penis, cervix, anus, urethra, or throat.
Strains of the infection that are drug-resistant are increasing, so it is important to talk with your doctor about the best treatment. Follow the medication instructions completely, get retested often, and report any ongoing symptoms to your doctor. Sexual contact with a person who is infected can cause the spread of gonorrhea even after treatment is over, so it is important that both you and your sexual partners get tested and treated for this and other sexually transmitted diseases. You should follow your doctor’s instructions regarding sex during treatment, which typically requires you abstain from sex for seven days after treatment is finished to ensure the infection is gone.
When to See Your Doctor
Yearly wellness exams that include screening for sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea and chlamydia are highly recommended. Sexually active young people under 25 years old, as well as anyone who has multiple sex partners, and those who have anal sex with men should be tested regularly.
You should see your healthcare provider if you experience any of the symptoms of gonorrhea, including painful urination, or pus-like discharge from the rectum, vagina, or penis. You should also make an appointment with your doctor if you discover a sexual partner has been diagnosed with gonorrhea. If you have contracted the disease, you can reinfect your partner even after their treatment is complete. Gonorrhea is serious, but it is very common and should not be ignored. The most important thing is to address it and get treatment quickly.
The doctors and staff at The Woman’s Clinic are committed to providing the women of Mississippi with state-of-the-art, high-quality care in a comfortable, private, and secure setting. Contact us today to make an appointment and address your obstetrics and gynecology healthcare needs.