Often called “the clap,” gonorrhea is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), spreading easily through sexual contact. Around the world, about 78 million new cases of gonorrhea occur every year, a majority of them in people between 15 and 24 years of age.
What does gonorrhea do to the body, who is most at risk of becoming infected and how have infection rates changed in the U.S. over the past several decades? Learn more about this common and easily treated STD.
What Is Gonorrhea?
Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection caused by the Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacterium. The bacteria infects the mucous membranes in the reproductive system as well as the mouth, throat, eyes and rectum.
The infection spreads through bodily fluids and can be transmitted through oral, anal or vaginal sex, but it cannot spread through casual, non-sexual contact like hugging or sharing food. Many people who contract gonorrhea are not aware they have become infected, which encourages the spread of the disease.
Men, however, are more likely to display symptoms than women, and while some symptoms are similar between the two sexes, there are some differences:
- Penile discharge that can be yellow, white or green in color
- Painful or swollen testicles
- Burning or pain during urination
- Bleeding between periods
- Burning or pain during urination
- Vaginal discharge that can be bloody or yellow-colored
In both men and women, gonorrhea can infect the anus of those who have anal sex. Symptoms of anal gonorrhea include itching in or around the anus, painful bowel movements and anal discharge.
When gonorrhea goes untreated, it can cause serious, possibly permanent health problems in men and women, including infertility.
Who Is Most Likely to Get Gonorrhea?
According to CDC estimates, about two-thirds of infections in the U.S. are among those between the ages of 15 and 24. Overall, infection rates are about 40% higher in men than women, though there’s a wide degree of variation by age group.
Gonorrhea infection rates by sex, age 15+ (cases per 100,000 people)
Among ethnic groups, African-Americans are more likely to be infected with gonorrhea than other groups.
Gonorrhea infection rates by race, age 15+ (cases per 100,000 people)
|Native American/Alaska Native||301.9|
|Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander||187.8|
Gonorrhea Across the U.S.
Nationally, Americans are infected with gonorrhea at a rate of 171.9 per 100,000 people, but many states have rates well over double the national level.
Gonorrhea infection rate by state (cases per 100,000 people)
Every state has seen their gonorrhea infection rate rise over the past five years, and 15 states have seen their rates more than double in that time. No state has posted a decline since 2013.
Percentage change in gonorrhea infection rates (cases per 100,000 people), 2013-2017
Gonorrhea rates also vary by the city or metro area in question, with many cities across the country posting rates that outpace the national level, while other major cities’ rates are far lower.
Gonorrhea rates by metro area (cases per 100,000 population)
|Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI||312.2|
|New Orleans-Metairie, LA||286.7|
|Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC||277.1|
|Louisville-Jefferson County, KY-IN||265.9|
|San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA||260.1|
|Kansas City, MO-KS||250.6|
|Oklahoma City, OK||248.9|
|St. Louis, MO-IL||238.7|
|Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA||222.9|
|Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls, NY||216.1|
|Austin-Round Rock, TX||214.6|
|Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA||213.7|
|Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV||205.5|
|San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX||201.3|
|San Diego-Carlsbad, CA||180|
|Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX||177.6|
|Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA||161.9|
|Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX||159.3|
|New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA||158.9|
|Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL||153.7|
|Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT||151.7|
|Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI||148.1|
|Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL||145.9|
|Salt Lake City, UT||142.7|
|San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA||127.8|
Today, the gonorrhea rate is storming back after remaining relatively low for about a decade. In fact, between 2016 and 2017 alone, the gonorrhea rate in the U.S. went up by 18%, and it’s gone up more than 60% since 2013. Still, gonorrhea is less common today than it was 30 years ago.
Gonorrhea rates by year (cases per 100,000 population)
Between 1984 and 2010, infection rates for gonorrhea in the United States plummeted by more than 70%, but the rate has gone up every year since 2013, and gonorrhea today is as prevalent as it was in the mid-1990s.
Despite advancements in treatment methods that mean it’s often possible to treat gonorrhea with a single pill, the CDC estimates that only about half the cases of the disease that occur in the country each year are actually reported to the agency. This means hundreds of thousands of people may be unknowingly spreading this bacteria to their sexual partners and could well be endangering their own long-term health outlook.
Knowing your status is the first step to ensuring that your body is free from the STD once called the clap.
- World Health Organization, Pan American Health Organization, Sexually Transmitted Infections, Gonorrhea. (Undated). Retrieved from https://www.paho.org/hq/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=14872:sti-gonorrhea&Itemid=3670&lang=en
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Table 21. Gonorrhea — Reported Cases and Rates of Reported Cases by Age Group and Sex, United States, 2013–2017. (2018). https://www.cdc.gov/std/stats17/tables/21.htm
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Table 13. Gonorrhea — Reported Cases and Rates of Reported Cases by State, Ranked by Rates, United States, 2017. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/stats17/tables/13.htm
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Table 22B. Gonorrhea — Rates of Reported Cases per 100,000 Population by Race/Hispanic Ethnicity, Age Group, and Sex, United States, 2017. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/stats17/tables/22b.htm
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Table 1. Sexually Transmitted Diseases — Reported Cases and Rates of Reported Cases per 100,000 Population, United States, 1941–2017. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/stats17/tables/1.htm