What it is

Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by bacteria that affects both men and women. If left untreated, it can cause serious health issues.

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The symptoms

Most women and some men will have no early symptoms. Signs of gonorrhea can take 2 to 10 days to show up (and sometimes even longer). Most women who have gonorrhea don't have any visible symptoms, or mistake their symptoms for bladder or vaginal infections. For men, symptoms usually appear in the first week after infection. Common signs and symptoms may include:

  • Pain, burning, or discomfort with urination (for women)
  • Bleeding during or after sex (for women)
  • Abnormal bleeding between periods (for women)
  • Change or increase in vaginal discharge (for women)
  • Pain with sex (for women)
  • Burning or discomfort with urination (for men)
  • A white, yellow or green discharge from the penis (for men)
  • Itching around the urethra (the opening to the penis) (for men)
  • Painful or swollen testicles (for men)

Oral sex can also cause gonorrhea in the throat for both men and women. This may cause a sore throat and swollen glands, but it usually causes no symptoms. Gonorrhea in the anus can cause discharge, bleeding, anal itching, soreness or painful bowel movements. Or there may not be any symptoms.

What it can do to you

Without treatment, gonorrhea can cause infertility in both men and women.

In women, gonorrhea can cause a serious infection of the womb and fallopian tubes (pelvic inflammatory disease). It can cause long-term pelvic pain and lead to infertility, miscarriages and ectopic (tubal) pregnancy.

Some men experience pain and swelling in the testicles ("balls"). This condition is called epididymitis. It can also cause sterility if scar tissue blocks the tubes that carry the sperm.

Gonorrhea may also cause eye infection and arthritis. If you are pregnant, gonorrhea can also be passed on to your baby during vaginal birth. This can lead to a serious eye infection and without treatment can cause permanent blindness in a newborn baby.

How you prevent it

Remember to always practice safer sex and use condoms. This will lower the risk of getting gonorrhea or other STIs.

If you find out that you have gonorrhea, your partner(s) need to be told that they could have an infection - even if there aren't any symptoms.

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If you have concerns about telling your partner(s), contact a public health nurse. The public health nurse can suggest ways to handle the situation or they will contact your partner(s) for you. Of course, your name will be kept confidential.

Gonorrhea can be spread through unprotected oral, anal or vaginal sex with an infected person, even if the person has no symptoms.

If you think you have it

If you suspect you have gonorrhea, visit your health care provider or sexual health clinic to get tested immediately.

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Get tested

For men, urine testing is common.

For men having sex with men who have had unprotected anal or oral sex, it is recommended that you have a sample taken from these areas.

For women, samples are taken from the infected areas (cervix, urethra, anus or throat). Many women assume STI tests are performed during their regular Pap exam. This is not the case. Be sure to ask your health care provider to test you for STIs - asking is the only way to know whether you are receiving the right tests.

It is important that you talk to your health care provider about the appropriate testing for you.

Get treated

Antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea is happening worldwide, including in Ontario. It is important that you get gonorrhea treated quickly and effectively to decrease complications such as pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility, and to prevent further spread of the antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea.

Gonorrhea can be cured with one injection in combination with pills. You must follow the directions given with your medication. Do not drink alcohol when taking antibiotics.

The signs and symptoms may go away in a few days but it takes approximately seven days to get rid of the infection. Do not have sex - even with a condom - until seven days after you've finished all medication.

Free treatment is available at your health care provider's office or at a sexual health clinic in your community.

Follow up

Often, your health care provider or sexual health clinic will schedule a follow-up test. These tests are just to make sure your infection has been treated effectively. The follow-up test should be done at least 4 weeks after you've finished your treatment.

Remember:

  • Take all your medication as prescribed by your health care provider.
  • If you have an untreated STI like gonorrhea, it's easier to get other STIs such as HIV from a person who has it.
  • It's possible to have more than one infection at a time, so it's important to be tested for other STIs.

If you decide to talk to your partner(s) yourself, learn how to talk comfortably about it.