Article by Dr Nitin Shori, Medical Director of the Pharmacy2U Online Doctor service, and a working GP.
Prevention is better than cure
The second most common STI, gonorrhoea can easily be treated with antibiotics, which tend to cure 95 per cent of cases. However, effective treatment of this particular STI is being complicated because the bacteria that causes the infection – Neisseria gonorrhoeae, or gonococcus – is becoming resistant to some antibiotics.
So, the old saying that ‘prevention is better than cure’ is certainly true for gonorrhoea – with antibiotic-resistance on the increase, it’s even more important to ensure that infections aren’t passed on. You can avoid catching the infection by taking precautions during sexual contact. Use male or female condoms every time you have vaginal or oral sex, or male condoms during anal sex. And don’t share sex toys – or at least wash them and cover them with a new condom before anyone else uses them.
Gonorrhoea really can cause blindness
If treated early on, it’s very unlikely that gonorrhoea can lead to long-term problems. But without treatment, it can spread to other parts of your body, causing potentially serious problems. The more times you catch gonorrhoea, the more likely you are to suffer complications – and issues arising from long-term infection are more difficult to treat.
In women, it can spread to the reproductive organs, causing pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which is estimated to happen in up to one in five untreated cases. This can lead to on-going pelvic pain, ectopic pregnancy and infertility.
During pregnancy, the infection may cause miscarriage, premature labour or an infant being born with conjunctivitis – and without prompt treatment, there’s a risk of the baby suffering progressive vision damage and even permanent blindness. You can be treated for gonorrhoea while pregnant or breastfeeding, as it won’t harm the newborn.
In men, it can cause painful infection in the testicles and prostate gland, which could lead to reduced fertility. Left untreated, gonorrhoea can invade the bloodstream and cause septicaemia – a life-threatening infection.
You may not be aware you have it
Often, symptoms of gonorrhoea develop within a few weeks of being infected. But don’t be fooled by a lack of anything obvious – sometimes they don’t appear until many months later.
Actually, about one in 10 infected men and half of infected women don’t experience any noticeable symptoms at all. This means the infection can go untreated for quite some time, so it’s vital that if you think there’s a chance you could be at risk, even if you have no obvious symptoms, you get tested.
It doesn't discriminate
Whether you’re male or female, 18 or 80, have just one sexual partner or many – it doesn’t matter because anyone who’s sexually active can get gonorrhoea. If you change sexual partners frequently or don’t use condoms, you could be particularly at risk of being infected. The stats show more than half of all gonorrhoea diagnoses were among heterosexuals aged between 15 and 24.
And the infection doesn’t limit itself to one particular part of the body, either. As well as infections of the genitals, both men and women can develop infections in the rectum, eyes or throat by having unprotected anal or oral sex. Infection in the rectum can cause pain or discharge, and if you get infected semen or vaginal fluid in your eyes, you can develop conjunctivitis. Usually, there are no symptoms if the throat is infected.
The usual symptoms in men are a discharge from the penis and pain or a burning sensation when urinating. Women may notice a discharge from the vagina and pain or burning when passing urine.
Getting tested is painless
You really shouldn’t be worried about getting tested – it can easily be done with a urine sample. It can sometimes involve a visual examination to look for signs of infection, giving a blood sample or a swab of the genital area. Remember, getting tested is a sensible health decision, and you shouldn’t be embarrassed to seek help.