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Gonorrhea: Know the Warning Signs, Symptoms, and How to Protect Yourself

Being sexually active is a decision that comes with responsibility. As a woman who is sexually active, it is important to be informed about the risks involved as well as how to protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as gonorrhea.

Since these infections can be treated effectively, it is also important to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms in order to get treated as early as possible for the best outcome.

What Is Gonorrhea?

Gonorrhea is a type of STI that is caused by a specific type of bacteria, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which can infect the mucous membranes of the reproductive tract.

In women this includes:

  • Urethra
  • Cervix
  • Uterus
  • Fallopian tubes

For men the bacteria can infect:

  • Mouth
  • Throat
  • Eyes
  • Urethra
  • Rectum

Gonorrhea is transmitted through direct sexual contact with the penis, vagina, mouth, or anus of a person who is infected.  It can also be transmitted from a mother to baby during childbirth. In infants, gonorrhea most commonly affects the eyes.

You can be re-infected after treatment if you later come into contact with someone who is carrying the bacteria. If you’ve had gonorrhea in the past and suspect you have it again, you should schedule an appointment with your OB/GYN as soon as possible.

Who is at Risk for Gonorrhea?

Statistics show that approximately 820,000 new cases of gonococcal infections occur each year in the United States, well over half of these cases being in young people ages 15-24.

Populations most at risk for contracting gonorrhea are sexually active teenagers, young adults, and African Americans.

Signs and Symptoms of Gonorrhea

While men may or may not experience symptoms such as urethral discharge, women are almost always asymptomatic.

Initial symptoms for women can be mild but may include one or more of the following:

  • You may experience pain or discomfort upon urination. Dysuria is often described as a burning sensation.
  • Increased vaginal discharge. You may experience vaginal discharge beyond what is typical for you throughout your menstrual cycle.
  • Vaginal bleeding. You may experience bleeding outside of regular menstrual bleeding, or after vaginal intercourse.
  • Painful intercourse. Sexual intercourse may feel painful and uncomfortable.
  • Abdominal or pelvic pain. You may experience discomfort or pain in the abdomen or around the pelvic area.
  • Unusual sores or rash. You may notice unusual sores or rash around your vaginal area.
  • Rectal infection. You may experience discharge, itching, soreness and bleeding around the anus. Painful bowel movements may also be a symptom.
  • Pharyngeal infection. Although symptoms are less common, you may experience a sore throat.

Long-Term Problems

Often these symptoms can be mistaken for other ailments such as bladder and vaginal infections. Many women are unaware they have gonorrhea until they visit their doctor for other reasons.

If left untreated, gonorrhea can put you at a high-risk for developing permanent health complications such as Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID), and Disseminated Gonococcal Infection (DGI). These are of particular concerns that require immediate treatment in women as they can lead to infertility, pregnancy complications, and scarring of the fallopian tubes.

Gonorrhea can also increase your risk of acquiring or transmitting the HIV virus. If you are experiencing any symptoms, it is important to have them examined by your doctor or another health care provider.

Should You be Tested?

If you experience any of the above symptoms, or if you are having sexual contact with anyone who has been recently diagnosed with an STI you should discuss testing with your health care provider.

The CDC recommends that all sexually active women under the age of 25 and women with risk factors (a new sexual partner, multiple sexual partners or a partner who has an STI) be tested on a yearly basis.

How is Gonorrhea Tested?

Your health care provider will collect and analyze a sample of cells. Samples are typically collected in one of two ways:

  • Urine test. A urine test will determine if there are any bacteria present in the urethra.
  • A swab of affected area. A swab of the throat, urethra, vagina or rectum may be taken to determine if the bacteria is present.

What is the Treatment for Gonorrhea?

The good news is that gonorrhea can be cured with the right treatment.

Treatment frequently involves dual therapy or the use of two antibiotic medications. The CDC recommends that one be taken orally, and one may be administered as a one-time intramuscular injection.

It is important to complete the full course of the medication to ensure the bacteria is eradicated adequately.

These medications can kill the infection. However, they cannot repair any permanent damage done by the disease. It is important to identify and treat symptoms as early as possible.

Remember, your partner should also be treated for gonorrhea if you have been diagnosed to prevent re-infection.

How Can You Prevent Gonorrhea?

If you are sexually active, the first line of defense against gonorrhea is practicing safe sex. Whether having oral, vaginal, or anal sex, the proper use of condoms can reduce the risk of transmission.

The only way to be sure there is no transmission risk of gonorrhea is to temporarily abstain from any type of sexual activity or be in a long-term monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is not infected.

Final Thoughts

If you are a woman who is currently sexually active with one or more partners, it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of gonorrhea infection and be examined by your health care provider if you have any concerns.

Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted infection that can have serious consequences if left untreated. However, when identified early and treated effectively with proper medication, it can be completely cured.

Don’t hesitate to call confidentially with any questions or concerns you may have regarding Gonorrhea or other STIs.

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