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Student Health Services


What is Gonorrhea?

Caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae, gonorrhea seems to be transmitted almost exclusively through sexual contact. Sexual activity, vaginal, oral, or anal sex, with an infected partner is riskier for women than for men. For women, there is a 50% chance of contracting gonorrhea on a single exposure during vaginal sex, while for men, the risk is about 25%. This difference is because the bacteria migrate less easily into the male urethra than into the female vulva, where they have more moist locations in which to multiply. Of course the risk increases for both men and women with each repeated exposure.


While symptoms tend to appear quite quickly and are unpleasant for men, it is also possible for the infection to be mild and relatively asymptomatic. In men, within 2 weeks after infection, burning and itching sensations develop in the urethra, especially during urination. There is also a thick, pus like discharge from the urethra, often spotting underwear.

Although up to 80% of women do not detect gonorrhea in its earlier stages, its most typical early symptom is a green or yellow discharge from the cervical area, where the bacteria tend to strike first. There may then be some vaginal irritation or irregularities in menstruation. If gonorrhea is not treated in its early stages, the initial symptoms usually disappear, however, the bacteria often move to other organs, causing more serious infections and complications. In men, it may affect the bladder, prostate, kidneys, or epididymis of the testes. Left untreated in either sex, the disease can cause sterility. In women, the infection often moves into the reproductive organs such as the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries, and may eventually result in pelvic inflammatory disease.


Because there are many new strains of gonorrhea bacteria that are penicillin-resistant, the disease is now generally treated with oral dosages of antibiotics in either the Cephalosporin or Quinolone class. Since some gonorrhea bacteria may not be completely eliminated by typical treatment, follow-up checks should be made about a week after treatment has ended. Treatment should include antibiotics that destroy chlamydia organisms as well, since that infection often coexists with gonorrhea. As with any STI, sexual partners of a patient with gonorrhea should be notified of their risk, so that they may seek appropriate diagnosis and treatment.


Talking to a potential partner about sexual history and experiences provides information to help make informed sexual decisions. Testing for STI before becoming involved sexually can lessen any risks.

If properly used, condoms provide good protection against fluid-transmitted STIs like gonorrhea. Make sure that the condom is latex or polyurethane. There is evidence that lamb or natural skin condoms do not protect against STIs because the membrane is too porous. If additional lubricant is added, make sure it is water based.