Gonorrhoea is caused by a bacterium – Neisseria gonorrhoeae – that can develop in the urethra (urinary tract), anus, throat, cervix or uterus. It can cause painful urination (stinging or burning sensation) and white-or-yellowish discharge from the genitals or anus. Sometimes infection can occur in the eye causing conjunctivitis.
If gonorrhoea is left untreated it can cause infertility in men and women. It can also increase the risk of HIV transmission.
Up to 80% of women and 10-15% men may not develop symptoms, so regular testing is important (if sexually active) as gonorrhoea is highly contagious even without symptoms. Symptoms of gonorrhoea can be similar to chlamydia.
Gonorrhoea is spread by contact with semen and vaginal fluids during anal and vaginal sex without a condom. Therefore, condoms offer the greatest protection against gonorrhoea. Oral sex can be a risk, where infection can occur in the throat. Other risks include sharing sex toys (that have not been thoroughly washed in warm soapy water), sexual foreplay where the infection can be transferred from the fingers (from touching the genitals) to other parts of the body (e.g. eyes). You cannot catch gonorrhoea from simple kissing, shaking hands, hugging, sharing towels, cups or utensils, or from a toilet seat.
Testing for gonorrhoea involves a urine test or a swab sample (taken from the penis, anus, vagina/cervix, or throat). Regular testing is recommended, every 3 months if you are sexually active and at risk.
Treatment for gonorrhoea involves a single antibiotic injection, and either a single or multiple doses of antibiotic tablets, depending on symptoms. Antibiotic resistance to treatment can occur, so dual antibiotic treatment is recommended.
It is important to avoid sex until the infection clears up (through treatment) and inform sexual partners (see STI Prevention – Contact Tracing) to prevent transmission and reinfection. You can get gonorrhoea again even if you had it before.
Note: clear or white discharge in the urinary tract (from the penis or vagina) can also be caused by other non-specific organisms (not gonorrhoea or chlamydia). This is called Non-Specific Urethritis (NSU) which can also have serious health impacts if not treated, and is sexually contagious in the same way as gonorrhoea or chlamydia is. Your doctor will work out the cause of any discharge and provide the correct course of antibiotic treatment.