The Centers for Disease Control estimates that more than 700,000 people in the US contract gonorrheal infections each year, with the largest demographics being teenagers, young adults, and African-Americans. However, anyone who is sexually active — regardless of age, gender, race, or sexual preference — can catch and transmit this STD.
The bacterium that causes gonorrhea, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, thrives in warm, moist places; parts of the body that are most vulnerable to infection include the cervix, uterus, and fallopian tubes in women, and the urethra, mouth, throat, eyes, and anus for both women and men. While this STD is most commonly spread through sexual activity, it may also be passed from mother to infant during childbirth.
For both men and women, it’s possible — and even common — to exhibit no symptoms at all. However, when symptoms do arise, they can be so mild and nonspecific that they’re frequently mistaken for lesser infections that are typically treated with over-the-counter drugs. Because delaying proper care of this easily treatable STD can result in long-term damage to your reproductive system, it’s crucial to be aware of the potential symptoms.
The signs of gonorrhea typically appear one to 14 days after infection. In men, these can include a burning sensation during urination, or a white, yellow, or green discharge from the tip of the penis. Painful or swollen testicles are also a possible side effect. In women, the symptoms can include a burning sensation while urinating, an increased amount of vaginal discharge, or bleeding between menstrual periods.
While both sexes are susceptible to gonorrhea, women are especially vulnerable, as their reproductive systems provide an ideal breeding ground for the bacterium responsible for the infection. For women, gonorrheal infections that go undetected can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). Afflicting approximately 750,000 women in the US each year, PID can cause internal pus-filled abscesses to form, chronic pelvic pain to develop, and damage to the fallopian tubes so severe that it may lead to infertility or ectopic pregnancy.
Left untreated, gonorrhea can also lead to infertility in men by causing epididymitis, a painful condition that affects the ducts attached to the testicles.
Thankfully, this STD is treatable and easy to diagnose through a culture or tissue or urine sample. However, drug-resistant strains are increasing in many parts of the world — the US included — causing gonorrhea to become more difficult to treat successfully. Although antibiotics can eliminate the infection, it won’t repair the damage caused by the disease. Therefore, as with all STDs, the main objective should be prevention through safer sex practices.
While abstinence is the only true way to avoid contracting gonorrhea, if you’re in a committed, monogamous relationship with a person who does not have it, it is unlikely you’ll contract it. Until you and your partner have both been tested for STDs, however, it’s crucial to practice safer sex by using protection every time you engage in any sexual activity. Latex condoms — used correctly and consistently — reduce the risk of spreading the infection.