Gonorrhea is the 2nd most common STI – here’s what you need to know about it

Microscopic view of gonorrhea

Gonorrhea on the rise in the US (Getty/Nadeen Nakib for Yahoo Life)

Cases of gonorrhea are skyrocketing in the US after hitting an all-time low in 2009. In 2020 (the most recent annual data is available), more than 675,000 cases of gonorrhea were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making it the second largest second most common is sexually transmitted infection behind chlamydia.

In fact, the number of reported gonorrhea has increased by 111% since 2009. But despite its prevalence, many people don’t know much about the infection. Here are important facts to keep in mind, just in case.

It is not spread by kissing or sharing food.

Gonorrhea, caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae, spreads through sexual contact with the penis, vagina, mouth or anus of someone who is infected, the CDC explains. A person does not have to ejaculate to spread gonorrhea. It can also be passed from mother to baby during childbirth, infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Yahoo Life.

Having gonorrhea once won’t prevent you from getting it again: The CDC says people who have had gonorrhea and have been treated for it can become infected again if they have sexual contact with someone with gonorrhea.

It is not uncommon to have gonorrhea and chlamydia at the same time.

Research has shown that up to 50% of all teens and young adults who tested positive for gonorrhea at STD clinics, family planning centers and juvenile detention centers also had chlamydia. Adalja says this could happen simply because “individuals with gonorrhea likely also have risk factors for chlamydia and vice versa.” And he points out, “They both transfer the same way and have the same acquisition risks.”

Many people with gonorrhea have no symptoms.

Most men and women with gonorrhea are asymptomatic — meaning they have no symptoms, the CDC says. The reason for this likely comes down to individual immune responses, Adalja says. Some people’s immune systems don’t react strongly to the bacteria and therefore don’t cause any symptoms, he explains.

Because many people with gonorrhea may go undiagnosed, “the true number of those who are asymptomatic is not known,” Dr. Nancy Phillips, an associate professor at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and director of the Center for Vulvovaginal Health, told Yahoo Life.

It can take about a week for symptoms to appear.

Again, many people with gonorrhea never show any signs of the disease. But for those who do, Phillips says, “Generally, symptoms appear within five to 14 days, but can be delayed for months, allowing the infection to go unnoticed for quite some time,” she says.

When symptoms appear, they are a little different for men and women. Men may experience the following symptoms, the CDC says:

  • Pain during urination

  • White, yellow or green discharge from the penis

  • Testicular or scrotal pain

Women may have these symptoms, according to the CDC:

If someone with gonorrhea has a rectal infection, the CDC says symptoms may include:

  • Disposal

  • Anal itch

  • pain

  • Bleed

  • Painful bowel movements

There is a cure for gonorrhea.

Gonorrhea can cause permanent and serious health problems if left untreated. In women, the bacteria can spread to the uterus or fallopian tubes and cause pelvic inflammatory disease, which can lead to infertility, the CDC says. Men can also develop infertility from gonorrhea, although it’s rare.

Fortunately, gonorrhea is treatable. Treatment consists of a dose of the antibiotic ceftriaxone given once by injection, according to the CDC. “If gonorrhea has spread up the pelvis, hospitalization for IV antibiotics may be necessary,” says Phillips. And, she notes, it’s a good idea to get retested two to four weeks after treatment to make sure the treatment worked and that you haven’t been reinfected by a partner.

Gonorrhea can be prevented.

There are a few ways to reduce the risk of gonorrhea. The Mayo Clinic recommends the following:

  • Use a condom when you have sex.

  • Limit your number of sex partners.

  • Make sure you and your partner are tested for sexually transmitted infections.

  • Do not have sex with someone who has symptoms of an STI, including a burning sensation during urination or a genital rash or sore.

  • Consider annual screening for gonorrhea, which is recommended for sexually active women under age 25 and for older women at increased risk of infection. The CDC also recommends that all men age 13 and older who have sex with other men should be screened for gonorrhea every year.

If you had gonorrhea and were being treated for it, the CDC recommends not having sex until you and your partner have completed treatment to reduce your risk of reinfection.

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