Neisseria gonorrhoeae is the bacteria that causes gonorrhea — aka “the clap” — the second most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the U.S.
Gonorrhea doesn’t always cause symptoms (asymptomatic gonorrhea), which means you may have gonorrhea and pass it to other sexual partners without even knowing. That’s why regular testing — and safe sex — is so important.
If you're sexually active, it's important to know about gonorrhea. When it's left untreated, gonorrhea can cause serious health problems, even if you don't have any symptoms. Keep reading to learn more about the signs of gonorrhea, how it’s spread, and treatments for gonorrhea.
Symptoms of gonorrhea
Most of the time, gonorrhea doesn’t cause any symptoms, making it tricky to detect. Sometimes, the symptoms may be so mild that you might not even realize you have it. It's common for people to mistake gonorrhea symptoms for another vaginal infection or sexually transmitted infection, too. This is why getting tested is crucial — even if you don't think you have it!
When they do show up, symptoms of gonorrhea in women may include:
- green or yellow vaginal discharge
- burning or discomfort while peeing (dysuria) or having sex (dyspareunia)
- pain or tenderness in the lower belly
- vaginal bleeding between periods.
Symptoms of gonorrhea usually appear within a few weeks, but for others, it can take a few months.
Gonorrhea can also affect the anus (anal gonorrhea) and cause:
- itching in and around the anus
- discharge from the anus
- painful bowel movements.
How do you get gonorrhea?
You can get gonorrhea by having unprotected oral, vaginal, or anal sex with someone who has the infection. The infection is carried in semen (cum), pre-cum, and vaginal fluids, so sharing used sex toys can also spread the disease. You have an increased risk of contracting gonorrhea if you have unprotected sex with a new partner, or have several sexual partners.
However, it's important to note that gonorrhea can't be contracted from kissing, hugging, sharing towels, or sitting on dirty toilet seats, as the bacteria can’t survive outside the body for that long.
If you’re sexually active, you can lower your chances of contracting gonorrhea (and other sexually transmitted infections) by:
- using condoms during vaginal or anal sex
- using a condom or dental dam during oral sex
- using a dental dam during vagina-to-vagina contact
- washing sex toys or covering them with a clean condom before sharing them with a sexual partner
- getting tested for sexually transmitted infections regularly, especially if you have multiple sex partners.
Pregnant women who have gonorrhea can pass on the infection to their baby during birth.
Can you get gonorrhea from oral sex?
Yes, unfortunately, a gonorrhea infection can be spread through oral sex, too — but it's more rare than urogenital gonorrhea. Though it's important to note that not all oral gonorrhea infections show symptoms, some common signs may include a sore throat, redness in the mouth or throat, and swollen lymph nodes.
Long-term effects of gonorrhea
When treated early, gonorrhea won't lead to any complications or long-term problems. An untreated infection, however, can have severe and long-lasting effects on your health.
For women, long-term effects of gonorrhea include pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can cause complications like scarring of the fallopian tubes, infertility, ectopic pregnancy, and chronic pelvic pain.
Pregnant women who contract gonorrhea carry the risk of passing the infection onto your baby during delivery, which could cause some serious health problems. Gonorrhea during pregnancy is also linked to pregnancy complications such as miscarriage, premature birth and low birth weight, premature rupture of membranes, and chorioamnionitis (an infection of the placenta and amniotic fluid).
As scary as that sounds, there are steps you can take to keep your baby safe and healthy. Your healthcare provider can give you the right tests and treatment, so talk to them as soon as possible. Treating a gonorrhea infection quickly can significantly reduce the chances of complications for you and your baby.
In very rare cases, untreated gonorrhea can spread through the bloodstream and cause life-threatening infections in other parts of the body.
Treatment for gonorrhea
Treating gonorrhea is usually straightforward. Your healthcare provider will give you oral antibiotics to treat the infection, which can be taken as a single dose or for seven days.
In some cases, however, oral antibiotics for gonorrhea might not be enough. Over the last few years, a new, drug-resistant strain of gonorrhea has emerged, so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a single intramuscular injection of the antibiotic ceftriaxone. Your doctor will help you figure out which treatment option is best for you.
If you have gonorrhea, your sexual partners must also get treated. This prevents passing the infection back and forth between you or to other people. Your doctor may also give medicine to both you and your partner.
Once you’ve finished the treatment course, you should wait seven days before having sex again and then get re-tested three months after the initial infection.
To test for genital gonorrhea, your healthcare provider will want a vaginal swab or urine sample. You can also do an at-home gonorrhea test, like with Evvy, by doing a vaginal swab and sending the sample to a lab.
The recommended testing method for gonorrhea is something called "nucleic acid amplification tests" (NAAT), which detects the genetic material of Neisseria gonorrhoeae in the sample provided.
In a second type of lab test, called a culture, the sample is placed in a container to see if gonorrhea bacteria grow over several days.
It can take up to two weeks for gonorrhea to show up on tests, so you should wait 14 days after having unprotected sex before taking an STI test to get the most accurate results.
As with other sexually transmitted diseases, getting tested regularly can reduce the spread of the disease, and early detection can also prevent any long-term risks to your health. This is especially important for people at higher risk of contracting the disease, like anyone with multiple sexual partners, new sexual partners, partners with STIs, a history of or current sexual infections, or anyone in a non-monogamous relationship. Really and truly, any sexually active person should be getting regular STI tests!
Is Neisseria gonorrhea an STD?
Neisseria gonorrhoeae isn’t a sexually transmitted disease (STD) in and of itself. Rather, it’s the bacterium that causes gonorrhea, which is a common STD.
How do you get Neisseria gonorrhoeae?
The main way people get gonorrhea is via sexual transmission, aka from having unprotected sex (vaginal, anal, oral). Gonorrhea is spread through semen and vaginal fluid, so using a condom or dental dam can reduce your risk of contracting it.
Is chlamydia the same as neisseria gonorrhoeae?
Chlamydia is a type of STI caused by the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis, while Neisseria gonorrhoeae is the bacteria that causes gonorrhea. Both are transmitted through sexual contact — and share similar symptoms — but they’re two different infections.