What is gonorrhea?

Gonorrhea is one of the common bacterial sexually transmitted infections (STIs). It is caused by the bacterium neisseria gonorrhoeae and can infect the urethra, mouth, throat, rectum, cervix, uterus, or fallopian tubes. Because the signs of gonorrhea often go unnoticed, an individual can develop serious health complications before they recognize they are infected.

Is it common?

Each year approximately 650,000 people in the US are infected with gonorrhea. Approximately 75% of all reported gonorrhea cases in the US are found in individuals 15 to 29-years-old. The highest rates of infection are usually found in 15 to 19-year-old women and 20 to 24-year-old men.

back to top

How is it transmitted?

Gonorrhea can be transmitted during vaginal and anal sex and, rarely, through oral sex. During oral sex on a penis, both people can give or get gonorrhea from each other. During oral sex on a vagina, the person giving oral sex would be more likely to be at risk for gonorrhea. Gonorrhea can be transmitted even if there are no signs or symptoms of infection. It can also be passed from an infected mother to her newborn during vaginal childbirth. It is not passed through casual contact.

What are the symptoms?

Gonorrhea can be present in an individual without producing symptoms. 90% of women may have no symptoms at all. Often, the first indication a woman is infected may arise when a partner is diagnosed. In women, symptoms may include:

  • Burning during urination
  • Yellowish-greenish discharge from the vagina
  • Pain in the pelvic or abdominal area
  • Fever
  • Unusual vaginal bleeding
  • Painful sexual activity
  • Bleeding after sexual activity
  • Swelling or tenderness of the vulva
  • Arthritic pain

Men are more likely to have symptoms, but symptoms in men can also go undetected. In men, symptoms may include:

  • Burning during urination
  • Yellowish-white discharge from the penis
  • Fever
  • Swollen or painful testicles

For all genders, gonorrhea infection may also occur in the throat, causing a minor sore throat or no symptoms at all and may also occur in the rectum, causing pus-like or bloody discharge, anal itching, soreness, bleeding, and sometimes painful bowel movements.

back to top

How soon after exposure to gonorrhea will symptoms appear?

If symptoms appear, they usually appear in women within 10 days and in men within 2 to 5 days, but can take as long as 30 days to surface. Even if you don't have symptoms, you can spread the infection to others if you don't use condoms or dental dams during sex.

How is it diagnosed?

Your medical provider will take a urine sample or a swab of the cervix, vagina, rectum, urethra, or throat and this will be analyzed by a lab test. You can make an appointment with Health Services or you can contact another testing site in Providence. Click here to see a listing of local STI test sites. If you choose to get tested at Health Services, you can ask your medical provider about testing costs and when you can expect your results back during your appointment.

back to top

How is it treated?

Gonorrhea infections are treated with antibiotics. All partners must be treated. Once you are treated you will also need follow-up cultures and an examination. Although it is generally easy to treat, some gonorrhea organisms are becoming resistant to antibiotic drug treatment. Even if symptoms are relieved, it is important to take the entire prescription to make sure the infection is gone. If you are tested at Health Services, you can pick up your antibiotic prescription here at the pharmacy.

If you find out that you are infected with gonorrhea, you should also notify your sex partner(s) so that they can be treated, even if they don't have symptoms. This will reduce the risk of your partner(s) experiencing complications from an infection and will reduce your risk of being re-infected. You should not have sex with your partner(s) until you complete your treatment, and until your partner(s) are tested and receive their treatment.

If you have had gonorrhea in the past and have been treated, you can get the disease again if you have sexual contact with an infected person.

Can gonorrhea infections be dangerous?

If left untreated, gonorrhea may cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and ectopic pregnancy in women, and sterility, arthritis, and heart problems in both women and men.

Links you can use

For more information about gonorrhea, you can visit:

Planned Parenthood

Centers for Disease Control

back to top

Disclaimer: BWell Health Promotion is part of Health Services at Brown University. Health Promotion maintains this site as a resource for Brown students. This site is not intended to replace consultation with your medical providers. No site can replace real conversation. Health Promotion offers no endorsement of and assumes no liability for the currency, accuracy, or availability of the information on the sites we link to or the care provided by the resources listed. Health Services staff are available to treat and give medical advice to Brown University students only. If you are not a Brown student, but are in need of medical assistance please call your own health care provider or in case of an emergency, dial 911. Please contact us if you have comments, questions or suggestions.