Healthy lives for young people
STIs

Gonorrhoea

Gonorrhoea is the second most common bacterial sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the UK and can lead to infertility in men and women.

Signs and symptoms of gonorrhoea

Half of women with gonorrhoea and 1 in 10 men don’t have any obvious signs or symptoms at all, so even if you don’t have any symptoms it’s really important you go to be tested for STIs if you’ve had unprotected sex.

Symptoms of gonorrhoea usually develop within a couple of weeks but for some people, it can be months later.

If you have symptoms, you might notice:

  • Unusual green or yellow discharge from the vagina
  • Unusual green, yellow or white discharge from the tip of the penis
  • A burning feeling when peeing
  • Pain or tenderness in the lower abdomen (tummy)
  • Heavy periods or bleeding between periods (this is rare)
  • Painful swelling of the foreskin
  • Pain or tenderness in the testicles (this is rare)

Gonorrhoea can also infect the rectum, throat and eyes:

  • Throat – no symptoms
  • Rectum – pain, discomfort or discharge
  • Eyes – conjunctivitis

Warning

If you leave gonorrhoea untreated it can spread to other parts of your body and can cause infertility in men and women.

The causes and spread of gonorrhoea

Gonorrhoea is caused by bacteria called Neisseria gonorrhoeae or gonococcus found in semen and vaginal fluid of people who have the infection. This bacteria can live in the cells of the cervix, the urethra, the rectum and the throat and is passed from one person to another through:

  • Unprotected vaginal sex
  • Unprotected anal sex
  • Unprotected oral sex
  • Sharing sex toys without washing them or covering them with a condom with each use

It is not clear if gonorrhoea can be passed on by transferring fluids on the fingers or by rubbing the female genitals together.

You cannot get gonorrhoea from kissing, hugging, sharing baths or towels, swimming pools, toilet seats or from sharing cups, plates or cutlery.

Gonorrhoea can also be passed from mother to baby during birth but can be treated during pregnancy with antibiotics.

Testing for gonorrhoea

If you’ve had unprotected sex you should get tested as soon as possible. Accurate results should appear after two weeks.

Testing for gonorrhoea is done with either a urine test or a swab test.

Swab test:

  • The swab (looks like a small cotton bud) collects a sample from inside the vagina or from the tip of the penis.
  • Very often you can take the swab from inside the vagina yourself.
  • If you have had oral or anal sex then a swab may be taken from either your throat or rectum
  • Taking the swabs may be slightly uncomfortable but should not be painful.

Men may be asked to provide a urine sample – the clinic will advise you.

If there is a high chance that you have gonorrhoea (for example if your partner has tested positive), you may be given treatment before the results are back.

Gonorrhoea testing is free and you can get one at Brook services, GUM or sexual health clinics or at some GP surgeries. Find your nearest using our find a service tool. It is also possible to buy gonorrhoea self-tests or you may be able to access free tests to do at home. Cervical smear tests and routine blood tests will not detect gonorrhoea.

Treatment of gonorrhoea

Treatment involves having an antibiotic injection and a single dose of antibiotic tablets.

You will be advised to return for a repeat test two – four weeks later to ensure you are clear of gonorrhoea.

If you had symptoms, you should notice improvements quite quickly. You should go back to where you had your test if:

  • The symptoms don’t improve within a week
  • You have unprotected sex again
  • You had unprotected sex with your partner before the treatment was finished
  • You did not follow the instructions or complete the treatment
  • The test was negative but you develop signs and symptoms of gonorrhoea

You should also avoid having sex until you have been given the all-clear, to prevent you being re-infected or passing the infection on.

Tell your previous partners

It is important that you tell any sexual partners from the last six months that you are being treated for gonorrhoea, so that they go for treatment too.

Some clinics may also offer to contact your partner using partner notification. This will warn them they may have been exposed to an STI and to recommend they get tested but it doesn’t mention your name.

Super gonorrhoea

Reports have suggested that there is a ‘super-strain’ of gonorrhoea. The Chief Medical Officer warned that this could lead to gonorrhoea becoming untreatable, due to the infection becoming resistant to certain antibiotics. All GPs and pharmacies are aware of this strain of gonorrhoea to ensure the correct antibiotics are being prescribed.

To protect yourself from gonorrhoea and other STIs you should use a condom every time you have sex, and if you have had unprotected sexual contact get tested for STIs.

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