Have a symptom?
See what questions
a doctor would ask.
Articles » Gonorrhea, NIAID Fact Sheet: NIAID

Gonorrhea, NIAID Fact Sheet: NIAID

Article title: Gonorrhea, NIAID Fact Sheet: NIAID

Conditions: Gonorrhea

Source: NIAID

October 2000


What is Gonorrhea?

Gonorrhea is a curable sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by a bacterium called Neisseria gonorrhoeae. These bacteria can infect the genital tract, the mouth, and the rectum. In women, the opening (cervix) to the womb (uterus) from the birth canal is the first place of infection. The disease however can spread into the womb and fallopian tubes, resulting in pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID affects more than 1 million women in this country every year and can cause infertility in as many as 10 percent of infected women and tubal (ectopic) pregnancy.

In 1997, health care workers reported 324,901 cases of gonorrhea in the United States to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Institute of Medicine, however, estimates that 800,000 cases of gonorrhea occur annually in the United States. Health economists estimate that the annual cost of gonorrhea and its complications is close to $1.1 billion.

Gonorrhea is spread during sexual intercourse vaginal, oral, and anal. People who practice anal intercourse can get gonorrhea of the rectum. Even women who do not engage in anal intercourse can get gonorrhea of the rectum if the bacteria are spread from the vaginal area.

Infected women can pass gonorrhea to their newborn infants during delivery, causing eye infections in their babies. This complication is rare because newborn babies receive eye medicine to prevent infection. When the infection occurs in the genital tract, mouth, or rectum of a child, it is due most commonly to sexual abuse.

What Are the Symptoms of Gonorrhea?

The early symptoms of gonorrhea often are mild. Symptoms usually appear within two to 10 days after sexual contact with an infected partner. A small number of people may be infected for several months without showing symptoms.

When women have symptoms, the first ones include:
  • bleeding associated with vaginal intercourse;
  • a painful or burning sensation when urinating; and/or
  • vaginal discharge that is yellow or bloody.
More advanced symptoms, which indicate development of PID, include cramps and pain, bleeding between menstrual periods, vomiting, or fever.

Men have symptoms more often than women. Symptoms include:
  • pus from the penis and pain, or
  • a burning sensation during urination that may be severe.
Symptoms of rectal infection include discharge, anal itching, and occasional painful bowel movements with fresh blood on the feces.

How is Gonorrhea Diagnosed?

Doctors or other health care workers usually use three laboratory techniques to diagnose gonorrhea: staining biological samples directly for the bacterium, detection of bacterial genes or nucleic acid (DNA) in urine, and growing the bacteria in laboratory cultures. Many doctors prefer to use more than one test to increase the chance of an accurate diagnosis.

The staining test involves placing a smear of the discharge from the penis or the cervix on a slide and staining the smear with a dye. Then the doctor uses a microscope to look for bacteria on the slide. You usually can get the test results while in the office or clinic. This test is quite accurate for men but is not good in women. Only one in two women with gonorrhea have a positive stain.

More often, doctors use urine or cervical swabs for a new test that detects the genes of the bacteria. These tests are as accurate or more so than culturing the bacteria, and many doctors use them.

The culture test involves placing a sample of the discharge onto a culture plate and incubating it up to two days to allow the bacteria to multiply. The sensitivity of this test depends on the site from which the sample is taken. Cultures of cervical samples detect infection approximately 90 percent of the time.

The doctor also can take a culture to detect gonorrhea in the throat. Culture allows testing for drug-resistant bacteria.

How is Gonorrhea Treated?

Doctors usually prescribe a single dose of one of the following antibiotics to treat gonorrhea:
  • Ceftriaxone
  • Cefixime
  • Ciprofloxacin
  • Ofloxacin
If you have gonorrhea and are pregnant or are younger than 18 years old, you should not take ciprofloxacin or ofloxacin. Your doctor can prescribe the best and safest antibiotic for you.

Gonorrhea and chlamydial infection, another common STD, often infect people at the same time. Therefore, doctors usually prescribe a combination of antibiotics, such as ceftriaxone and doxycycline or azithromycin, which will treat both diseases.

If you have gonorrhea, all of your sexual partners should get tested and then treated if infected, whether or not they have symptoms of infection.

What Can Happen if Gonorrhea is Not Treated?

In untreated gonorrhea infections, the bacteria can spread up into the reproductive tract, or more rarely, can spread through the blood stream and infect the joints, heart valves, or the brain.

The most common result of untreated gonorrhea is PID, a serious infection of the female reproductive organs. Gonococcal PID often appears immediately after the menstrual period. PID causes scar tissue to form in the fallopian tubes. If the tube is only partially scarred, the fertilized egg cannot pass into the uterus. If this happens, the embryo may implant in the tube causing a tubal pregnancy. This serious complication results in a miscarriage and can cause death of the mother. Rarely, untreated gonorrhea can spread through the blood to the joints.

If you are infected with gonorrhea, your risk of getting HIV infection increases (HIV, human immunodeficiency virus, causes AIDS). Therefore, it is extremely important for you to either prevent yourself from getting gonorrhea or get treated early if you already are infected with it.

Can Gonorrhea Affect a Newborn Baby?

If you are pregnant and have gonorrhea, you may give the infection to your baby as it passes through the birth canal during delivery. A doctor can prevent infection of your baby's eyes by applying silver nitrate or other medications to the eyes immediately after birth. Because of the risks from gonococcal infection to both you and your baby, doctors recommend that pregnant women have at least one test for gonorrhea during pregnancy.

How Can I Prevent Getting Infected With Gonorrhea?

By using male latex condoms correctly and consistently during vaginal or rectal sexual activity, you can reduce your risk of getting gonorrhea and its complications.

What Research is Going On?

Scientists supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) are continuing to learn more about the bacterium that causes gonorrhea and are working on better methods to prevent, diagnose, and treat the disease. The dramatic rise of antibiotic-resistant strains of the gonococcus bacterium emphasizes the need for an effective means of preventing gonorrhea. Scientists have developed a laboratory method to detect these resistant strains, which helps the doctor select an appropriate treatment.

Developing topical microbicides (preparations that can be inserted into the vagina to prevent infection) and an effective vaccine against gonorrhea remain key research priorities for NIAID-supported scientists.

NIAID, a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), supports basic and applied research to prevent, diagnose and treat infectious and immune-mediated illnesses, including HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis, malaria, autoimmune disorders, asthma and allergies.

Prepared by:
Office of Communications and Public Liaison
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
National Institutes of Health
Bethesda, MD 20892

Public Health Service
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


By using this site you agree to our Terms of Use. Information provided on this site is for informational purposes only; it is not intended as a substitute for advice from your own medical team. The information on this site is not to be used for diagnosing or treating any health concerns you may have - please contact your physician or health care professional for all your medical needs. Please see our Terms of Use.

Home | Symptoms | Diseases | Diagnosis | Videos | Tools | Forum | About Us | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Site Map | Advertise