Causes and Risk Factors of Gonorrhea
Gonorrhea is a prevalent sexually transmitted disease (STD) also referred to as a sexually transmitted infection (STI). The bacteria that causes gonorrhea is called Neisseria gonorrhoeae. It affects both men and women.
In 2017, there were 555,608 reported cases of gonorrhea in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).1 If you’re sexually active you may be at risk of contracting it—the bacteria can cause infections in the genitals, rectum, or throat. If left untreated, gonorrhea can lead to serious complications. However, with medication, it can often be cured.
Common Risk Factors
Let’s take a look at some of the factors that contribute to the chances of acquiring gonorrhea and the action steps you can take to reduce those risks.
If you have unprotected, vaginal, oral, or anal sex with someone who’s infected with gonorrhea, you may acquire the infection.2 If your condom breaks during sex with an infected partner, your chances of contracting it may increase.
Although gonorrhea is transmitted through sexual activity, a male partner doesn’t have to ejaculate to spread the infection to another person. Like most germs, if you touch an infected area of someone who has the infection, you may get it. If the bacteria enter an opening in the body, including the vagina, penis, anus, or mouth, you can become infected.
If you’ve been diagnosed with gonorrhea in the past and took the medication to eradicate the infection, you can still get the infection again if you have unprotected sex with a partner who has it.
To decrease the likelihood that you’ll transmit gonorrhea to a sexual partner or acquire it from them, the CDC recommends the following testing schedule:
- You should be tested yearly if you’re a sexually active man who is gay, bisexual, or who has sex with men.
- If you’re a sexually active woman under the age of 25, you should be tested every year.
- If you’re a woman over 25 with multiple sexual partners, you should be tested every year.
- If you have a sexual partner who’s been diagnosed with an STD/STI, you should be tested on an annual basis.
Testing isn’t difficult or scary—an easy swab or urine test can yield accurate results.
If you’re pregnant and have gonorrhea, it can pose potential risks to your pregnancy or you can pass the infection to your baby during childbirth.2 In this instance, the infection typically affects the baby’s eyes, lungs, and rectum.
Compromised Immune System
If you’re immunocompromised, including having a diagnosis of HIV/AIDs, you may be more at risk of acquiring and spreading the infection.
How It Doesn’t Spread
Gonorrhea can’t survive outside of the human body, which means you can’t contract it from bed sheets, toilet seats, or clothing from a person who has the infection.
There are a couple of factors that may increase your susceptibility to gonorrhea, as stated by the CDC. These factors include gender and age.
First, the CDC reports that the thin, delicate, and moist environment of the vagina can make it a hospitable environment for bacteria to grow. Second, the rates of gonorrhea are highest among adolescents and young adults.3
Although gender and age may play a part in increasing your chances of getting gonorrhea, it’s important to mention that the CDC states that incidences of the infection have recently been on the rise among the male population. Therefore, further research is needed to determine just how much these genetic factors contribute to the potential risks of becoming infected with gonorrhea.
Lifestyle Factors That Lower Risk
There are some risk factors of gonorrhea that you can address through your daily habits and behaviors.
The only way to ensure you won’t become infected or spread gonorrhea is to abstain from having sex. However, that may not be realistic or practical for all individuals. If you decide to have sex use a condom.
Unsure of how to properly use condoms to protect yourself from the transmission of STDs/STIs? There are helpful guides available for correctly using male condoms and female condoms. Paying attention to details like checking the expiration date or how you unroll a condom can make using them more effective.
While it might not always be an easy topic to discuss, maintaining open communication with your sexual partners about whether or not they’ve been tested for gonorrhea can help you protect yourself.
Ask your partner whether they’ve had recent STD/STI testing done and whether the tests were positive or negative. If your partner hasn’t been tested in a while, find out if they’d consider getting tested.
If your partner displays atypical symptoms like pain or burning upon urination, unusual discharge, or something else, refrain from sexual activities until they can be evaluated and treated accordingly by a doctor.
Stay the Course of Treatment
If you’ve been diagnosed with gonorrhea, it can be tempting to stop taking your medication as soon as you begin feeling better or your symptoms subside. But to fully eradicate the infection, stay the course of treatment your doctor has prescribed for you.3
To prevent becoming reinfected or infecting someone else, your doctor will likely want you to forgo unprotected sex for a week following the completion of your treatment.
Prioritize Annual Screenings
If you’re sexually active with a new partner, have multiple partners, or you’ve been with a partner who’s been diagnosed with gonorrhea, consider making routine screenings an ongoing part of your overall healthcare.3 Furthermore, practice safe sex to reduce the risk of contracting gonorrhea. When it’s caught early, gonorrhea is a curable infection. If it’s left untreated, it can lead to serious complications for both men and women.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance 2017. Gonorrhea
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gonorrhea – CDC Fact Sheet
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gonorrhea – CDC Fact Sheet (Detailed Version)
- 10 Ways STDs Impact Women Differently From Men. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/std/health-disparities/stds-women-042011.pdf
- 2015 Sexually Transmitted Diseases Surveillance. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/std/stats15/gonorrhea.htm
- Gonorrhea. Mayo Clinic website. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/gonorrhea/symptoms-causes/syc-20351774
- Gonorrhea. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services website. https://www.hhs.gov/opa/reproductive-health/fact-sheets/sexually-transmitted-diseases/gonorrhea/index.html