STIs, or sexually transmitted infections, are something no one likes to think about. For starters, is there anything more terrifying than getting an infection that affects your private parts?
Sure, using protection during sex will keep these infections at bay — but we're only human, we make mistakes, and sometimes those slip-ups can keep us up at night wondering if that sore throat is really gonorrhea throat (or insert just about any ailment that might be caused by the unprotected sex you had here).
But let's talk about gonorrhea specifically, since it's a common STI that gets passed around. Just how common, you ask? Around 820,000 cases per year are reported in the U.S., according to a study done by the CDC.
More men contract gonorrhea than women on average, with 330,000 more cases reported by men than by women in 2015. As for age demographic, men and women ages 20-24 were the range that most of the reported gonorrhea cases fell. But as far as age and gender go, people of any age and sex can contract gonorrhea. STIs don't discriminate, folks.
Want to know more about this STI? From how it gets contracted to how to protect yourself, symptoms, treatment options and more, here's everything you need to know about gonorrhea.
What Is Gonorrhea?
Just from the name alone, you know it can't be good — anything that rhymes with diarrhea is probably not something you want to contract. 'Gonorrhea is a common sexually transmitted bacterial infection that primarily affects the genital tract of both men and women,' says Dr. Amesh Adalja MD, infectious disease physician at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. 'Less commonly it can affect the rectum, the eyes and throat. It is caused by Neisseria gonorrheae, the gonococcus.'
The gonorrhea bacteria affects the areas of the body that are warm and moist, which includes the urethra, vagina, anus and entire female reproductive tract (cervix, uterus and fallopian tubes). However, some cases of throat gonorrhea and even gonorrhea in the eyes can occur.
You may have heard of gonorrhea before, by way of it being referred to as the clap. Why is gonorrhea called 'the clap,' you ask? There are a few theories for how this disease got its nickname. Before safe sex was a thing, brothels used to be a hotbed for transmitting the disease. In France, these prostitution rings were called 'clapiers,' which is where some say the name comes from. Another story (which you're not going to like) involves early doctors thinking that gonorrhea could be cured by clapping both hands around the sides of the penis to get the pus out (told you).
Symptoms Of Gonorrhea
One of the scariest things about gonorrhea are the symptoms that come with it — not because they're painful, but because the majority of people who have it never experience symptoms at all (a big reason why the disease gets passed around so easily). 'Usually there are no symptoms,' says urologist Dr. David Shusterman. 'Half of guys who have it don't know it. The symptoms are very mild, often a man will just feel that something is 'off.' With advanced cases or depending on your body presenting symptoms could include discharge, burning or lacerations or ulcers, a break in the skin. It is usually painless.' Other gonorrhea symptoms in men can include greater frequency or urgency of urination or sore throat.
Symptoms of gonorrhea in women are similar, and may also include spotting between periods and pain during intercourse. If left untreated, complications from gonorrhea in men can include scarring of the urethra, or developing an abscess in the penis that can cause infertility. Similarly in women, gonorrhea can lead to infertility caused by pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). Even if you're not experiencing any symptoms, it's smart to keep up with your annual STI screening to make sure you haven't contracted gonorrhea, since most cases of this disease don't present themselves by way of physical indicators that you have it.
How Is Gonorrhea Spread?
If you're concerned about getting gonorrhea from French kissing, sharing food, using a yoga mat that you rented for a class or any other instance where body contact is concerned, Dr. Adalja says not to worry. "Gonorrhea is acquired through sexual contact between individuals, primarily sexual intercourse,' he says. "Oral sex can transmit the infection as well."
Another word of caution from Dr. Sam Malik, GP at DrFelix — sharing sex toys can also spread the disease. If you're using toys with a partner, it is important to clean them before and after you do so. While most toys are safe to be washed with soap and water, using an antibacterial wash specifically designed to get toys clean is your best bet (try this one).
How To Prevent Gonorrhea
You know the drill: Don't be a fool, wrap your tool. "You can prevent gonorrhea by using male or female condoms during sex, or male condoms during anal sex," says Dr. Malik. "During oral sex you should use a male condom to avoid contact with the male genitals, or an oral barrier, usually Latex Square, to cover the female genitals. Washing sex toys thoroughly after every use, or covering them with a condom, also prevents the spread of infection."
It's also worth noting that getting tested once a year, and whenever you're starting a relationship with a new partner is another way to make sure that neither of you have gonorrhea or any other STI. Not that this should be used in place of protection — not to scare you even more, but you never really know whether or not your partner could be up to, and you definitely don't want to find out the hard way (by contracting an STI). But knowledge is power when it comes to STIs, especially ones that don't always present themselves by way of symptoms.
How To Diagnose Gonorrhea
If you think you might have contracted gonorrhea, it's smart to take the necessary steps to get tested. 'Gonorrhea is tested by a urine sample for men, or a swab of vaginal discharge for women (urine samples are not so accurate for women),' explains Dr. Malik. 'The testing must be done in an appropriate laboratory.
You can do this at home by ordering a home test kit from an online doctor service, which will include instructions on how to use it. The samples are then forwarded to the lab. You'll get your test results within two to three days of the lab receiving the sample.' However, if you are experiencing symptoms, it will likely be more time efficient to go to your doctor and get tested rather than take the time to order a kit, send the results to the lab, and then wait for said results to be ready in 1-3 days.
AskMen Recommends: Concerned you may have picked up an unwanted infection from a recent sexual encounter? We're not here to shame you. But before you let things fester (or sleep with other people), you should find out what your STI status is, and, if you have one, take action immediately. If you don't have the opportunity to see a doctor or to go to a health clinic, consider getting ordering an at-home STI test kit. This one from myLAB tests for chlamydia and gonorrhea and boasts a 98% to 99.2% accuracy.
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For other options, check out our list of the best at-home STI kits.
How To Treat Gonorrhea
Can gonorrhea be cured? Luckily, this STI can be treated with medication. 'The recommended treatment for gonorrhea are antibiotics either Cefixime or Ceftriaxone,' explains Dr. Malik, 'which is administered as an injection. Previously, it could have been treated with a course of antibiotic tablets Suprax (Cefixme), however this is no longer the primary or secondary treatment option due to the growing antibiotic resistance.' As time has gone on, gonorrhea has actually become more difficult to treat — a type which doctors refer to as 'super gonorrhea.'
'Due to the rising cases of 'super gonorrhea' which is a more powerful strain of the infection and is resistant to the antibiotic tablets in some cases, we no longer offer the tablet form as a treatment in line with the latest BASHH and NICE guidelines. The recommended course of treatment is only the Ceftriaxone or Cefixme injection,' says Dr. Malik. Once a person with gonorrhea has been treated, the antibiotics take effect soon after. 'Gonorrhea can be cured quickly once it's been diagnosed,' says Dr. Malik.
"Symptoms are likely to improve within a few days of beginning the treatment, although it is important to get tested as soon you think you may have the infection to prevent any lasting damage." After you've received the treatment, you should wait at least a week in order for the medicine to run its course before engaging in sexual intercourse, even if you're being safe, to ensure that there's no remaining bacteria.
Gonorrhea is another STI example of why it's incredibly important to get tested at least once per year. You may be carrying an STI even if you're not experiencing any symptoms, and if left untreated, you could wind up dealing with complications down the road that could have been avoided if the disease had been detected earlier, or unknowingly passing it along to a partner.
Most insurance covers one STI screening test per year, so make sure to schedule your next appointment in a timely manner. And remember, the number one way to stay STI free and prevent gonorrhea is to practice safe sex regularly. So wash those toys, stock up on condoms and oral barriers to prevent gonorrhea.