Skip to main content
hpa logo
Topics A-Z:
Search the site:

General Information

This fact sheet gives basic, non-technical information on gonorrhoea. The information in the fact sheets may be especially useful for those teaching about sexual health or preparing projects on sexually transmitted infections. Click on a question below to scroll straight to that topic:

What is gonorrhoea?

  • Gonorrhoea is a sexually acquired infection caused by Neisseria gonorrhoeae, a bacterium.
  • After genital chlamydia, gonorrhoea is the second most common bacterial sexually transmitted infection in the UK.
  • It occasionally causes serious complications.

Who gets gonorrhoea?

  • Anyone who has sex can get gonorrhoea. The people most at risk are those having unprotected sexual intercourse (i.e. not using a condom), especially those with more than one sexual partner, and those who frequently change partners.
  • In 2004, there were 22,335 cases diagnosed in STI clinics (also called genitourinary medicine or GUM clinics) in the United Kingdom. The true number of cases is thought to be considerably greater, however, because gonorrhoea is frequently without symptoms in women who may therefore not attend a clinic.
  • The highest rates of gonorrhoea are seen in women aged 16-19 and in men aged 20-24 years.

How do you catch gonorrhoea?

  • Gonorrhoea is a sexually transmitted infection. It is caught through unprotected vaginal, oral or anal intercourse or genital contact with an infected partner.
  • An infected person may have no symptoms, but still transmit the infection without knowing.
  • Gonorrhoea cannot be caught by casual contact (toilet seats, swimming pools, saunas).
  • A pregnant woman can pass infection onto her newborn baby during delivery.

How do you know that you have gonorrhoea?

  • The early signs of gonorrhoea are often mild and many young women and some young men show no symptoms and so can be unaware of their infection.
  • Symptoms in young women can include a painful and burning sensation when passing urine and discharge from the vagina that is yellow or bloody. These symptoms appear 2-10 days after becoming infected.
  • Young men more frequently show signs of infection than young women. Typical symptoms include a discharge from the penis and a severe burning when passing urine.
  • Men and women with rectal infections may experience discharge from the anus, anal discomfort and pain on anal intercourse.

How serious is gonorrhoea?

  • Gonorrhoea can have especially serious effects for young women if left untreated.
    Young women with gonorrhoea can develop pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). This occurs when the bacteria spread up from the vagina and cervix to damage the reproductive tubes leading to the ovaries.
  • Once established PID is hard to treat.
  • PID can result in chronic abdominal pain and pain during intercourse. It can also lead to infertility. The most severe complication is ectopic pregnancy when the embryo starts to grow in the reproductive tube instead of the uterus. This can be fatal when the reproductive tube ruptures because it cannot expand to accommodate the developing baby. A few women die from ectopic pregnancy in the UK each year.
  • An infected woman can pass the bacteria on to the baby during delivery causing it to be born with neonatal conjunctivitis (inflammation of the lining of the eye). However, this can be treated.
  • Rarely, untreated gonorrhoea can spread to the blood stream or the joints. This occurs in both men and women.

How can you protect yourself against gonorrhoea?

  • Sexually active young men and women can reduce their risk of gonorrhoea by reducing their numbers of partners and using condoms correctly and consistently during sexual intercourse.

How is gonorrhoea diagnosed?

  • Gonorrhoea can usually be diagnosed by a swab taken from the penis or cervix (neck of the womb).
  • Testing for sexual infections is often best done in genitourinary medicine clinics (also called STI clinics) which have the equipment and facilities for testing and for contacting, testing and treating sexual partners. Details of these clinics can be found in the telephone book, from your local hospital or from the NHS Direct website sexual health pages [external link].
    Clinics are completely confidential and will not inform GPs of results unless specifically requested to do so. You can attend one of these clinics at any age (even if you are under the age of consent to sex which is 16).
  • Some GPs, family planning clinics and young peoples' clinics now also offer testing.
  • A person with suspected gonorrhoea should also be tested for other sexually transmitted infections which may be present without symptoms.

How is gonorrhoea treated?

  • As a bacterial infection gonorrhoea can usually be treated with an antibiotic. This is now often given as a single dose.
  • However, there are many strains of gonorrhoea and some are now resistant to the commonly used antibiotics. This makes it important for anyone with suspected gonorrhoea to be properly investigated.
  • All current and recent sexual partners of a person with gonorrhoea should be tested and treated to prevent re-infection and the further spread of disease. Treatment is offered whether or not they show any signs of infection.