Gonorrhoea Symptoms & Causes
Gonorrhoea is a common sexually transmitted infection, which has seen an recent increase in the UK in the last few years.
What are the symptoms of Gonorrhoea?
Tests for Gonorrhoea and Chlamydia are generally done together due to similarities in the symptoms they produce and their presence together in lots of patients.
What are the symptoms of Gonorrhoea in men?
Symptoms in the Genital Area
- Discharge from urethra (Classically copious amounts of pus like discharge from the urethra, with staining of underwear. Sometimes the discharge can be severe enough that patient feels the need to wrap his penis in a tissue paper)
- “Wetness” at penile tip
- Discomfort in water pipe
- Irritation in water pipe
- Irritation on passing urine
- Painful urination
- Pain in one or both testicles
- Less commonly, red spots on the glans (head) of penis (Balanitis)
Symptoms in the Eyes
- Redness of one or both eyes
- Stickiness in one or both eyes
- Discharge in one or both eyes
Symptoms in the Throat
- Sore throat
Symptoms in the Ano-rectal area (in homosexual men)
- Irritation in back passage
- Mucoid or slimy or blood-stained discharge from the back passage
Many cases of disseminated gonorrhoea have been identified recently, and refers to gonorrhoea infection away from their usual mucosal sites of infection, involving skin and joints (see image below of Gonorrhoea spread to the legs).
What are the symptoms of Gonorrhoea in women?
- Abnormal discharge
- Change in discharge
- Bleeding after sexual contact (post-coital bleeding)
- Bleeding between periods (intermenstrual bleeding)
- Abdominal pain
- Pain on having sexual intercourse
- Painful urination (Dysuria)
- Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)
- Bacterial vaginosis
Many patients with bacterial vaginosis may have an underlying infection (Gonorrhoea, Chlamydia, Trichomonas vaginalis). The correct diagnosis and treatment of underlying infection is the best way to manage bacterial vaginosis in such patients. If the underlying cause is not addressed, symptoms of bacterial vaginosis are very likely to return.
Eyes: see above
Throat: as above
Ano-rectal symptoms: as above
Disseminated gonorrhoea: as above
Are the symptoms of Gonorrhoea similar to another STI?
Yes. The symptoms of Gonorrhoea, Chlamydia and Mycoplasma may overlap a lot, and in fact are often found to be present together in many patients. It is important that different infections are diagnosed correctly, and treated appropriately for complete resolution of symptoms.
Can I have Gonorrhoea without knowing it?
Yes. It is much more common in women to have Gonorrhoea infection in their genitalia without any symptoms, than it is in men. Sometimes symptoms can be vague and non-specific, and diagnosis can be easy to miss in the absence of appropriate tests.
Many patients, especially heterosexual women and homosexual men, have Gonorrhoea in their throat without any symptoms. Furthermore, diagnosis of throat infection requires a throat swab for Gonorrhoea.
I think I have Gonorrhoea. What should I do?
Seek advice from a sexual health specialist.
Urethral discharge in men due to Gonorrhoea is one of the most distressful symptoms of an STI. Fortunately the infection responds very well with dramatic improvement in the symptoms within a day or so with administration of correct antibiotics.
Early treatment helps in prevention of complications as well as reduces transmission of the infection to others.
In men and women: SARA (Sexually Acquired Reactive Arthritis)
Less commonly, Gonorrhoea can cause pain and inflammation of the joints and tendons, known as sexually acquired reactive arthritis (SARA); this can sometimes also cause inflammation of the eyes, and skin lesions. This tends to be seen more often in men than women, and occurs due to a reaction in tissues against the Gonorrhoea bacteria, away from the site of original infection in the genitalia. This can sometimes occur weeks and even months after the genital infection has been effectively treated.
In Men: Epididymitis or Epididymo-orchitis
Gonorrhoea can cause the inflammation of one or both testicles and epididymis (the tubes carrying sperm from the testicles). This can be very painful and lead to reduction in fertility.
In women: Gonorrhoea during pregnancy
Untreated Gonorrhoea also increases the risk of preterm labour and an underweight baby.
In women: Gonorrhoea in the newborn baby
Untreated gonorrhoea at the time of vaginal delivery can lead to infection occurring in the eyes of the newborn baby. These symptoms normally develop within 5 days of birth. This is a very serious infection and can lead to reduced vision or even complete blindness in the newborn.
In women: Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)
Fortunately, this condition can be treated with a course of antibiotics and if seen early enough, further complications can be avoided. This may include:
- Difficulty in getting pregnant (which may progress to infertility)
- Persistent pelvic pain
- Greater risk of ectopic pregnancy (i.e. when a fertilised egg is implanted outside of the womb)
What causes Gonorrhoea?
- Unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex
- Sharing of unclean sex toys (with/without a condom)
- Very close contact with partners’ genitals
- Infected semen and/or vaginal fluid in the eye
- During childbirth from infected mother
You CANNOT get Gonorrhoea from the following:
- Close contact (e.g. kissing and/or hugging)
- Sharing showers, towels, swimming pools
- Toilet seats
What can increase my chances of getting Gonorrhoea?
- If you have had Gonorrhoea before
- If you have a greater number of sexual partners
How can I prevent getting Gonorrhoea?
- Have protected vaginal, oral and anal sex
- Use a condom, femidom and/or dental dam with a new partner
- Only use sex toys that you know are clean
- You and your new partner get tested before having sex
- Don’t have sex with your partner if they were treated for Gonorrhoea less than 7 days ago
Can I pass Gonorrhoea to my child?
If you leave Gonorrhoea untreated whilst pregnant, then there is a chance of passing it onto your child. This may result in your child developing conjunctivitis (an eye infection) and/or pneumonia (lung infection). The risk of a premature birth also increases (before 37 weeks of pregnancy) as well as the possibility of your child being born underweight.
If you are pregnant and/or think you have Gonorrhoea, please see your sexual health clinician without any delay. Treatment is simple and complications can be avoided.
Page reviewed by Dr. Manoj Malu (Clinical Director)
Last reviewed date: 3 March 2020
Next review due: 3 March 2023
Whilst this content is written and reviewed by sexual health specialists, it is for general guidance only. It is not intended to replace the advice of your clinician.
References & Further Reading
- International Journal of STD & AIDS: 2018 UK national guideline for the management of infection with Neisseria gonorrhoeae.
- NHS: Gonorrhoea – Symptoms
- Mayo Clinic: Gonorrhea – Symptoms and causes
- Avert: Gonorrhoea symptoms & treatment
- Cepheid: Chlamydia & Gonorrhea (CT/NG) Molecular Test – Xpert CT/NG
- NICE: Gonorrhoea
- BASHH: Guidelines