Gonorrhea is a common sexually transmitted disease (STD) that is spread via vaginal, oral, or anal sex. It can also be passed from an infected pregnant mother to her infant during delivery.1 Also called the clap,2 gonorrhea is caused by an infection by a bacterium called Neisseria gonorrhoeae.3
Gonorrhea is a relatively simple-to-treat STD, typically with antibiotics like ceftriaxone. However, it's important to realize that the clap does come with certain consequences and complications, especially if a person is unaware that they have gonorrhea and goes untreated for a prolonged time. Understanding these complications and knowing how to reduce your risk of contracting this STD can help keep you and your sexual partner(s) healthy.
Risk Factors for Gonorrhea
Anyone who is sexually active is at risk for gonorrhea. It's more common in younger people, however people of any age can be affected.
In addition to adolescents and young adults who are sexually active, other people who are at an increased risk for the clap include:
- People with multiple or new sexual partners
- People who do not use condoms correctly, consistently, or at all
- People with HIV/AIDS or anyone else with a weakened or compromised immune system
- Children born to mothers who have untreated gonorrhea
- People who have sex under the influence of drugs and alcohol, which can increase the likelihood of risky sexual behaviors
It's worth realizing that the prevalence of gonorrhea is rising in this country, so routine STD screening is important. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 555,608 cases of gonorrhea were diagnosed in the United States in the year 2017, an increase of nearly 19% compared to 2016, and an increase of over 75% since the historic low in 2009.3
Because of this, it's more important than ever to be regularly screened for gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted diseases, especially if you are younger and/or have multiple sexual partners. The CDC advises all women under 25 as well as older women with multiple sexual partners to be tested for the clap yearly.1
Complications and Consequences of Gonorrhea
Undiagnosed gonorrhea—which can happen frequently since there are often no symptoms—can lead to potentially serious health complications since the underlying STD will remain untreated.4 These may include:
- Uncomfortable symptoms. As mentioned, gonorrhea does not usually present with any symptoms at all (but even asymptomatic people can still spread the bacteria to their sexual partners). But if symptoms do show up, they can cause a great deal of physical and psychological discomfort.1 These may include anal and genital itching, abnormally colored or abnormally smelling discharge from the penis or vagina, burning or pain during urination, bleeding from the rectum, and sex during intercourse or bleeding in between menstrual periods (in women).
- Male health complications. Men with untreated gonorrhea may be at an increased risk of infertility, scarring and narrowing of the urethra, and prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate gland). They may also develop a condition known as epididymitis, which causes inflammation of the tubes which normally carry semen.5 Symptoms of epididmyitis include scrotal pain, scrotal swelling, and fever.
- Increased risk for HIV. Having gonorrhea can increase your risk of getting infected by HIV if you're exposed to the virus that causes it. As mentioned, because HIV lowers the strength of your immune system, you may also be more likely to develop gonorrhea if you're already HIV positive.
- Increased risk of spreading gonorrhea to sexual partner(s). Anyone who receives treatment for gonorrhea should refrain from having sexual intercourse for at least 7-10 days following a full course of antibiotics, or as directed by their doctor. It's possible to pass on the clap to sexual partner(s), with or without any active symptoms.
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). The clap is one of the most common causes of PID,1,3 which is a potentially life-threatening inflammation and infection of a woman's upper reproductive tract, including the fallopian tubes, uterus, and cervix. PID can lead to consequences such as chronic and severe pelvic or abdominal pain, infertility, ectopic pregnancies, miscarriage, and irreversible damage to a woman's reproductive organs. Having gonorrhea may also increase a woman's risk of developing a urinary tract infection (UTI) or bladder infection.6
- Increased risk of other health problems. The bacteria that causes gonorrhea can infect more than just the reproductive organs and genitals. Neisseria gonorrhoeae can also spread to the mouth, eyes, throat, and anus.7 This can lead to health problems such as joint infections, causing joint stiffness, swelling, warmth, and redness; tenosynovitis (swelling and inflammation around tendons); difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) or sore throat; skin infections (such as dermatitis); eye pain; photophobia (light and glare sensitivity); and discharge from the eye that looks like pus.
Complications for Infants and Babies of Mothers with Gonorrhea
An infant can contract gonorrhea from their mother during delivery.1 This may increase the risk for a variety of health complications, including:
- An eye infection called ophthalmia neonatorum, or newborn conjunctivitis (once a leading cause of blindness8); in severe cases this can lead to permanent vision loss
- Joint infections similar to those seen in adults
- Skin sores and rashes similar to those seen in adults
- Blood infections, which in rare but serious cases can be life-threatening or fatal
Additionally, women with untreated gonorrhea are also more likely to have premature labor and delivery, which is associated with a variety of potential health consequences for both mother and child.9,10 Lastly, stillbirth is another potential complication for pregnant mothers with gonorrhea. Due to the severity of these potential complications, expecting mothers should be screened for STDs early on in their pregnancy and be treated as soon as possible.
Are you sexually active? Making the time to get regularly screened for STDs is an essential part of any healthy sex life, but it doesn't have to be inconvenient, expensive, or scary. If you'd like to be screened for gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted diseases in the privacy of your own home, order your at-home STD test kit today.
- (2014, January 29). Gonorrhea—CDC Fact Sheet. https://www.cdc.gov/std/gonorrhea/stdfact-gonorrhea.htm
- Gonorrhea. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/gonorrhea.html
- (2018, July 24). Gonorrhea. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/stats17/gonorrhea.htm
- Martin, F.J. (2018, September 19). Gonorrhea Risks & Complications. Retrieved from https://www.stdcheck.com/gonorrhea-risks-complications.php
- Complications from Gonorrhea. Retrieved from https://stanfordhealthcare.org/medical-conditions/sexual-and-reproductive-health/gonorrhea/symptoms/complications.html
- Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs). Retrieved from https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/health-and-wellness/urinary-tract-infections-utis
- Smith, L. (2018, November 9). Gonorrhea: Symptoms, Treatment, and Causes. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/155653.php
- Speer, M.E. (2019, February 4). Gonoccocal Infection in the Newborn. Retrieved from https://www.uptodate.com/contents/gonococcal-infection-in-the-newborn
- Bakalar, N. (2015, February 11). Premature Delivery Tied to Heart Risks in Mother. Retrieved from https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/11/premature-delivery-tied-to-heart-risks-in-mother/.
- Henderson, J., Carson, C., & Redshaw, M. (2016). Impact of Preterm Birth on Maternal Well-Being and Women's Perceptions of Their Babies: A Population-Based Survey. BMJ Open, 6(10), e012676. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5073632/.
- (2017, December 21). Premature Birth. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/premature-birth/symptoms-causes/syc-20376730