Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted disease (STD). It’s caused by infection with the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae. It tends to infect warm, moist areas of the body, including the: urethra (the tube that drains urine from the urinary bladder), eyes, throat, vagina, anus, female reproductive tract (the fallopian tubes, cervix, and uterus).
Gonorrhea passes from person to person through unprotected oral, anal, or vaginal sex. People with numerous sexual partners or those who don’t use a condom are at greatest risk of infection. The best protections against infection are abstinence, monogamy (sex with only one partner), and proper condom usage. Behaviors that make a person more likely to engage in unprotected sex also increase the likelihood of infection. These behaviors include alcohol abuse and illegal drug abuse, particularly intravenous drug use.
Symptoms usually occur within two to 14 days after exposure. However, some people infected with gonorrhea never develop noticeable symptoms. It’s important to remember that a person with gonorrhea who doesn’t have symptoms, also called a nonsymptomatic carrier, is still contagious. A person is more likely to spread the infection to other partners when they don’t have noticeable symptoms.
Tests for gonorrhea
Healthcare professionals can diagnose gonorrhea infection in several ways. They can take a sample of fluid from the symptomatic area with a swab (penis, vagina, rectum, or throat) and place it on a glass slide. If your doctor suspects a joint or blood infection, he or she will obtain the sample by drawing blood or inserting a needle into the symptomatic joint to withdraw fluid. They will then add a stain to the sample and examine it under a microscope. If cells react to the stain, you most likely have a gonorrhea infection. This method is relatively quick and easy, but it doesn’t provide absolutely certainty. This test may also be completed by a lab technologist. A second method involves taking the same type of sample and placing it on a special dish. This will be incubated under ideal growth conditions for several days. A colony of gonorrhea bacteria will grow if gonorrhea is present.
Women are at greater risk of long-term complications from untreated infections. Untreated infection with gonorrhea in women may ascend up the female reproductive tract and involve the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. This condition is known as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and can cause severe and chronic pain and damage the female reproductive organs. PID can be caused by other sexually transmitted diseases as well. Women may also develop blocking or scarring of the fallopian tubes, which can prevent future pregnancy or cause ectopic pregnancy. An ectopic pregnancy is when a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus. Gonorrhea infection may pass to a newborn infant during delivery. Men may experience scarring of the urethra. Men may also develop a painful abscess in the interior of the penis. The infection can cause reduced fertility or sterility. When gonorrhea infection spreads to the bloodstream, both men and women can experience arthritis, heart valve damage, or inflammation of the lining of the brain or spinal cord. These are rare but serious conditions.
The safest way to prevent gonorrhea or other STDs is through abstinence. If you do engage in sex, always use a condom. It’s important to be open with your sexual partners, get regular STD testing, and find out if they’ve been tested.