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By J. Allen McCutchan, MD, MSc

Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which infect the lining of the urethra, cervix, rectum, and throat or the membranes that cover the front part of the eye (conjunctiva and cornea).

  • Gonorrhea is usually spread through sexual contact.

  • People usually have a discharge from the penis or vagina and may need to urinate more frequently and urgently.

  • Rarely, gonorrhea infects the joints, skin, or heart.

  • Microscopic examination, culture, or DNA tests of a sample of the discharge or DNA tests of urine can detect the infection.

  • Antibiotics can cure the infection.

In the United States, the number of gonorrhea cases reported each year has decreased since it peaked at nearly 900,000 in 1985. However, the number appears to have leveled off for about the last 10 years, with about 334,000 cases reported in 2012.

Gonorrhea is almost always spread through sexual contact. After one episode of vaginal intercourse with an infected person, the chance of spread from women to men is about 20%. The chance of spread from men to women may be higher.

If pregnant women are infected, the bacteria can spread to the eyes of the fetus during birth. However, in most developed countries, infection is prevented because all newborns are routinely treated after delivery with medicated eye ointment.

Many people with gonorrhea have other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), such as chlamydial infection, syphilis, or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection.

Did You Know...

  • If pregnant women have gonorrhea, the eyes of the fetus may become infected during birth, so newborns are routinely treated to prevent this infection.

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