Gonorrhoea is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by bacteria called Neisseria gonorrhoeae or gonococcus. It used to be known as "the clap".
How gonorrhoea is spread
The bacteria that cause gonorrhoea are mainly found in discharge from the penis and in vaginal fluid.
Gonorrhoea is easily passed between people through:
- unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex
- sharing vibrators or other sex toys that have not been washed or covered with a new condom each time they're used
The bacteria can infect the entrance to the womb (cervix), the tube that passes urine out of the body (urethra), the rectum and, less commonly, the throat or eyes.
The infection can also be passed from a pregnant woman to her baby. If you're pregnant and may have gonorrhoea, it's important to get tested and treated before your baby is born.
Without treatment, gonorrhoea can cause permanent blindness in a newborn baby.
Gonorrhoea is not spread by kissing, hugging, swimming pools, toilet seats or sharing baths, towels, cups, plates or cutlery. The bacteria cannot survive outside the human body for long.
Symptoms of gonorrhoea
Typical symptoms of gonorrhoea include a thick green or yellow discharge from the vagina or penis, pain when peeing and, in women, bleeding between periods.
But around 1 in 10 infected men and almost half of infected women do not experience any symptoms.
If you have any of the symptoms of gonorrhoea or you're worried you may have an STI, you should visit a sexual health clinic for a sexual health test.
Find a sexual health clinic.
You can also contact the FPA sexual health helpline on 0345 122 8687.
Gonorrhoea can be easily diagnosed by testing a sample of discharge picked up using a swab. In men, testing a sample of urine can also diagnose the condition.
It's important to get tested as soon as possible because gonorrhoea can lead to more serious long-term health problems if it's not treated, including pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in women or infertility.
Read more about:
- diagnosing gonorrhoea
- possible complications of gonorrhoea
- visiting an STI clinic
Gonorrhoea is usually treated with a single antibiotic injection and a single antibiotic tablet. With effective treatment, most of your symptoms should improve within a few days.
It's usually recommended you attend a follow-up appointment a week or 2 after treatment so another test can be carried out to see if you're clear of infection.
You should avoid having sex until you have been told you no longer have the infection.
Previous successful treatment for gonorrhoea does not make you immune to catching it again.
Anyone who's sexually active can catch gonorrhoea, particularly people who change partners frequently or do not use a barrier method of contraception, such as a condom, when having sex.
Gonorrhoea is the second most common bacterial STI in the UK after chlamydia.
In 2017, more than 44,500 people were diagnosed with gonorrhoea in England, with most cases affecting young men and women under the age of 25.
Gonorrhoea and other STIs can be successfully prevented by using appropriate contraception and taking other precautions, such as:
- using male condoms or female condoms every time you have vaginal sex, or male condoms during anal sex
- using a condom to cover the penis or a latex or plastic square (dam) to cover the female genitals if you have oral sex
- not sharing sex toys, or washing them and covering them with a new condom before anyone else uses them
If you're worried you may have an STI, visit a sexual health clinic for advice.
Gonorrhoea is usually treated with a short course of antibiotics.
Antibiotics are usually recommended if:
- tests have shown you have gonorrhoea
- there's a high chance you have gonorrhoea, even though your test results have not come back yet
- your partner has been diagnosed with gonorrhoea
In most cases, treatment involves having an antibiotic injection (usually in the buttocks or thigh) followed by 1 antibiotic tablet. It's sometimes possible to have another antibiotic tablet instead of an injection, if you prefer.
If you have any symptoms of gonorrhoea, these will usually improve within a few days, although it may take up to 2 weeks for any pain in your pelvis or testicles to disappear completely.
Bleeding between periods or heavy periods should improve by the time of your next period.
Attending a follow-up appointment a week or two after treatment is usually recommended, so another test can be carried out to see if you're clear of infection.
You should avoid having sex until you, and your partner, have been treated and given the all-clear, to prevent re-infection or passing the infection on to anyone else.
If your symptoms do not improve after treatment or you think you've been infected again, see your doctor or nurse. You may need repeat treatment or further tests to check for other problems.
Gonorrhoea is easily passed on through intimate sexual contact. If you're diagnosed with it, anyone you've recently had sex with may have it too.
It's important that your current partner and any other recent sexual partners are tested and treated.
Your local genitourinary medicine (GUM) or sexual health clinic may be able to help by notifying any of your previous partners on your behalf.
A contact slip can be sent to them explaining that they may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and suggesting they go for a check-up. The slip will not have your name on it, so your confidentiality is protected.
Treating babies with gonorrhoea
Babies with signs of a gonorrhoea infection at birth, or who have an increased risk of infection because their mother has gonorrhoea, will usually be given antibiotics immediately after they're born.
This does not harm the baby, and helps prevent blindness and other complications of gonorrhoea.