Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that can cause infertility. This bacterial infection is on the rise in Canada and becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics.

Gonorrhea (commonly known as "the clap") is transmitted through oral, genital, or anal sex with an infected person. It can also be spread from mother to child during birth.

After 20 years of decline in Canada, the rates of reported cases of gonorrhea have risen more than 53 percent over the past ten years. The recent rise in gonorrhea can be partly attributed to improved lab tests and screening, as well as people not consistently using safer sex methods. Gonorrhea disproportionately affects sexually active youth and young adults under 24 years of age, especially men.

Symptoms of gonorrhea

The symptoms of gonorrhea infection are different in women and men. People infected with gonorrhea may have no symptoms at all.  If symptoms do occur, they usually appear two to seven days after infection.

For men who do experience symptoms, these may include:

  • a burning sensation when urinating
  • yellowish/white discharge from the penis
  • burning or itching at the opening of the penis
  • painful or swollen testicles

For women, the early symptoms of gonorrhea are often mild and many of those infected have no symptoms at all. In other cases, women may mistake the symptoms for a bladder or vaginal infection. For women who do experience symptoms, these can include:

  • a burning sensation when urinating
  • vaginal discharge
  • pain in the lower abdomen
  • pain during sex
  • vaginal bleeding between  periods or after sex

Women with mild or no symptoms are still at risk of serious complications from the infection.

In both men and women, gonorrhea can infect the rectum. Symptoms of rectal infection may include:

  • discharge
  • anal itching
  • soreness
  • bleeding
  • painful bowel movements

People infected through oral sex may have a sore throat.

Even without symptoms, gonorrhea can be transmitted to others. Anyone at risk should be tested.

The health risks of gonorrhea

In women, untreated gonorrhea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID health risks include abdominal pain, fever, internal abscesses, long-lasting pelvic pain, and scarring of the fallopian tubes causing infertility and increasing the chance of ectopic or tubal pregnancies.

Men can develop epididymitis, a painful inflammation in the tubes attached to the testicles. If left untreated, it can on rare occasions lead to infertility.

If left untreated, both sexes are at risk of the infection spreading through the bloodstream and infecting other parts of the body, including joints. This condition can be life-threatening.

If a pregnant woman has gonorrhea, the infection can be passed to the baby in the birth canal during delivery, causing blindness, joint infection, or a life-threatening blood infection.

Having gonorrhea also increases the risk of contracting and transmitting HIV.

Testing for gonorrhea can be done with a urine test or through swabbing. Gonorrhea can be treated with antibiotics, though the infection is becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics.

Minimizing your risk

Following these suggestions can help you avoid contracting and transmitting gonorrhea:

  • Learn about safer sex methods and practice them.
  • Make informed decisions. Talk to your partner(s) about their STI status and the use of protection.
  • Correctly and consistently using a condom during sex reduces the risk of gonorrhea and other STIs.
  • Get tested for gonorrhea if you are sexually active.
  • If you are diagnosed and treated for gonorrhea, be sure to follow your healthcare professional's treatment and follow-up recommendations.
  • Avoid unprotected sexual activities that may put you at risk for reinfection until both you and your partner(s) have completed your antibiotic treatments and have been told that the infection is gone.
  • It is important that you or someone from your public health department notify any sexual partners who may have been put at risk of infection. They will also need to be tested and possibly treated.
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