HealthLinkBC File Number: 
Sexually Transmitted Infections Series
Last Updated: 
December 2013

What is gonorrhea?

Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted infection caused by bacteria. In women, the infection may occur in the opening of the uterus, also known as the cervix, and fallopian tubes. In both men and women, the infection may occur in the rectum, throat, and the urethra – the tube that carries urine from the bladder.

To find out if you have gonorrhea, you need to see a health care provider and have lab tests done.

How is it spread?

Gonorrhea is passed from one person to another by contact with body fluids containing the bacteria during unprotected oral, anal, and vaginal sex.

Sometimes a person with gonorrhea will have no symptoms. Even without symptoms, the infection passes easily to another person.

A person with a gonorrhea infection will be able to pass the infection on to others until antibiotic treatment has been completed.

Pregnant women may pass the infection to their baby's eyes during childbirth. This may lead to blindness if the baby is not treated.

Gonorrhea treatment does not protect you from getting it again. If you are treated and your sex partner(s) are not, the bacteria will be able to pass back to you again.

What are the symptoms?

Some people with gonorrhea will have no symptoms and will not know that they have the infection. In women, the early symptoms are sometimes so mild that they are mistaken for a bladder infection or dismissed as a mild vaginal infection.

For women, symptoms can include:

  • a change in the amount and colour of fluid from the vagina;
  • pain or a burning feeling while urinating;
  • unusual vaginal bleeding or spotting; and
  • pain during vaginal sex.

For men, symptoms can include:

  • a creamy white or yellow fluid from the penis; and
  • pain or a burning feeling while urinating.

In both men and women, a gonorrhea infection in the rectum may cause itching, pain, bleeding, or a stringy white fluid when having a bowel movement. Gonorrhea infection in the throat may cause a sore throat, but doesn't usually cause symptoms.

Most often, symptoms will appear 2 to 7 days after being exposed to the bacteria. In some cases, it may take up to 30 days for symptoms to appear.

What are the complications?

If treated in time gonorrhea causes no lasting concerns. Untreated gonorrhea can lead to complications.

In women, an untreated gonorrhea infection can spread and cause infection in the reproductive organs. Complications may include difficulty getting pregnant, ectopic or tubal pregnancy, or pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). See HealthLinkBC File #08c Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) for more information. Pregnant women can pass the infection to their baby's eyes during childbirth. This may lead to blindness if the baby is untreated.

In men, complications may include an infection in the testicles, which can lead to infertility.

In both men and women it can spread to other organs in the body, causing joint, skin and eye problems.

What is the treatment?

The treatment for gonorrhea is antibiotics in pill form or by injection. It is important that anyone that you had any oral, vaginal, or anal sex within the last 2 months is offered treatment whether they have symptoms or not.

Because re-infection with gonorrhea is common, you should have a follow-up test 6 months after treatment. Pregnant women should have a follow-up test 4 to 6 weeks after completing treatment.

It is important that you do not have any unprotected oral, vaginal, or anal sex for at least 7 days after you and your partners start treatment. Take all of the medication exactly as instructed.

Will my birth control pills work if I am taking antibiotics?

Birth control pills may not work as well when you are taking certain antibiotics. If you are being treated with antibiotics, keep taking your birth control pills and use a second form of birth control, such as a condom, until your next period after completing the antibiotics.

How can I reduce my chance of getting a sexually transmitted infection (STI)?

Practice safe sex by using a condom
When used as directed, male and female condoms help prevent the spread of many STIs, including HIV, during vaginal, anal and oral sex. Condoms are less effective at protecting against STIs transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, such as herpes simplex, genital warts (human papillomavirus or HPV), and syphilis.

Important things to remember when using condoms:

  • Check the condom package for damage and to ensure the expiry date has not passed.
  • Carefully open the package so that the condom does not tear.
  • Keep condoms away from sharp objects such as rings, studs, or piercings.
  • Store condoms at room temperature.
  • A new condom should be used every time you have sex.
  • Use only water-based lubricants with male latex condoms. Oil-based lubricants, such as petroleum jelly, lotion, or baby oil can weaken and destroy latex.
  • Avoid using spermicides containing nonoxynol-9 (N-9). It irritates sexual tissue and may increase the chance of getting an STI.

Get vaccinated
Some STIs, such as hepatitis A, B and human papillomavirus (HPV) can be prevented with vaccines. Talk to your health care provider about how to get these vaccinations.

Know your sexual health status
If you have recently changed sexual partners, or have multiple sex partners, getting regularly tested for STIs will tell you if you have an infection. Finding and treating an STI, (including HIV) reduces the chances of passing the infection on to your partner.

The more partners you have, the more likely you are to be exposed to a sexually transmitted infection.

Talk about prevention
Talk to your partner about STIs and how you would like to prevent them before having sex. If you are having trouble discussing safer sex with your partner, talk about it with your health care provider or a counselor.

For tips on how to talk to your partner, visit the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) SmartSexResource at http://smartsexresource.com/sextalk/talk-about-it.

Informing Partners
If you have a sexually transmitted infection and are sexually active, it is important to tell your sexual partners. This will enable them to make decisions about their health and getting tested.

For More Information

For more information on how you can reduce your chance of getting an STI, see HealthLinkBC File #08o Preventing Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).

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Is it an emergency?

If you or someone in your care has chest pains, difficulty breathing, or severe bleeding, it could be a life-threatening emergency. Call 9-1-1 or the local emergency number immediately.
If you are concerned about a possible poisoning or exposure to a toxic substance, call Poison Control now at 1-800-567-8911.

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