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Gonorrhoea symptoms and treatment

Gonorrhoea is normally passed on through unprotected sex or sharing sex toys that have not been washed or covered with a new condom. Many people, especially women, do not experience any symptoms.  

It is easily treated, usually with a single antibiotic injection. Left untreated it can cause infertility or other serious long-term health problems.  

What is gonorrhoea?

Gonorrhoea is a sexually transmitted infection (STI), caused by a bacteria (tiny, living cells) called Neisseria gonorrhoeae or gonococcus. It used to be known as "the clap". 

The bacteria are mainly found in infected semen and vaginal fluids, as well as warm moist parts of the body such as the vagina, penis, rectum and throat. 

How do you get gonorrhoea?

The bacteria are usually spread through: 

  • unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex 

  • sharing unwashed or uncovered sex toys with someone who has the infection. 

Bacteria can infect the entrance to the womb (cervix), the tube that passes urine out of the body (urethra), the rectum (the tube connected to the anus) and, less commonly, the throat or eyes.  

Gonorrhoea can also be passed on by a pregnant woman to her baby.  

Gonorrhoea can’t be passed on through casual contact like kissing, hugging, sharing baths, towels or using the same toilet as someone with the infection. The bacteria does not survive outside the human body for long. 

How do you prevent gonorrhoea?

The best way to protect against gonorrhoea is by using a new external (male) condom or internal (female) condom every time you have vaginal or anal sex. If you are having oral sex use an external condom to cover the penis or a dental dam to cover the vulva (female genitals). 

Gonorrhoea can be passed on by sharing sex toys. Always cover sex toys with a new condom and wash them each time they’re used. 

Taking the contraceptive pill or any other type of contraception – apart from condoms – doesn’t prevent gonorrhoea. 

It’s important to regularly test for gonorrhoea, even if you don’t have any symptoms. 

Having regular STI tests is one of the best ways to look after your sexual health. If you are having sex with multiple partners, it’s even more important to use condoms and get tested regularly even if you don’t have any symptoms. 

What are the symptoms of gonorrhoea?

Many people who have gonorrhoea do not notice any symptoms. If you do get symptoms these usually appear within 10 days of infection, but they can also develop months later. 

Gonorrhoea symptoms in women include: 

  • unusual green or yellow discharge from the vagina which may be thin or watery 

  • pain or burning when urinating (peeing) 

  • pain in the lower abdomen – this is less common 

  • bleeding between periods and/or heavier period and bleeding after sex – this is less common. 

Gonorrhoea symptoms in men include: 

  • unusual discharge from the penis that may be white, yellow or green in colour 

  • pain or burning when urinating (peeing) 

  • inflammation or swelling of the foreskin 

  • pain in the testicles – this is rare. 

You can also get gonorrhoea in your anus (bottom), eyes or throat. If infected semen or vaginal fluid comes into contact with the eyes, you can develop conjunctivitis. 

Both women and men can experience irritation, pain, swelling or discharge in the anus or the eyes. Gonorrhoea in the throat doesn’t normally have any symptoms. 

How do I test for gonorrhoea?

If you think you're at risk of having gonorrhoea or have any symptoms you should get tested as soon as possible. You can have a test even if you do not have symptoms.  

For women, a healthcare professional will usually take a swab from either the lower part of the womb (cervix) or the vagina. Women are not usually asked to provide a urine (pee) sample to check for gonorrhoea because this is a less accurate test for women. 

Men usually need to provide a urine (pee) sample or a swab taken from the end of the penis (urethra).  

If you have had anal or oral sex, you may have a swab taken from the anus (bottom) or throat. 

Being treated as soon as possible will reduce your risk of developing any serious or long-term complications. 

How is gonorrhoea treated?

Gonorrhoea is usually treated with antibiotics. In most cases it is treated with a single antibiotic injection. Sometimes it’s possible to be treated with an antibiotic tablet instead. 

If you have any symptoms these will usually improve in a couple of days, although pain in your pelvis or testicles can take up to 2 weeks to disappear. Bleeding between periods or heavy periods should improve by your next period. 

It’s important to not have sex again until you and your current sexual partner/s have finished treatment and a healthcare professional says you can. 

Remember that if you’ve been treated for gonorrhoea you can get infected again, so it’s important to go for regular tests. 

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What are the long-term effects of untreated gonorrhoea?

If left untreated, gonorrhoea can lead to other health problems. The more times you have gonorrhoea, the more likely you are to have problems. 

In women it can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID is an infection that can lead to pelvic pain, infertility (inability to get pregnant), and ectopic pregnancy (pregnancy outside the uterus) which can be life-threatening. PID can be treated with antibiotics. 

In men untreated gonorrhoea can cause an infection in the testicles and prostate gland. This can result in fever, scrotal pain and swelling and, in rare cases, infertility. 

In rare cases, for both women and men, untreated gonorrhoea can spread through the bloodstream to other parts of the body. This can cause inflammation and swelling of joints and tendons, skin irritation and redness, and inflammation around the brain and spinal cord (meningitis) or the heart. 

What if I’m pregnant and have gonorrhoea?

It is important to be tested for gonorrhoea if you are pregnant as untreated gonorrhoea can lead to complications such as miscarriage, premature labour and birth or your baby being born with a low birthweight. You can also pass the infection on to your baby. If this happens, your baby could develop an eye infection (conjunctivitis), which in serious cases can lead to blindness.  

With the right treatment during pregnancy, these complications can be avoided. If your baby develops symptoms then they should also be tested to check for gonorrhoea. Antibiotics can be used to treat them. 

How do I tell my recent sexual partner(s) I have gonorrhoea?

If you test positive for gonorrhoea, it’s important to tell any recent sexual partner(s) so they can also get tested, and treated if necessary. If you feel it is safe to do so then telling a partner is the responsible thing to do – it shows you respect them and want them to stay healthy. 

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  • Last updated: 16 October 2023
  • Last full review: 01 March 2022
  • Next full review: 01 March 2025
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