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    What does gonorrhea feel like? Your questions answered

    Updated 20 March 2024 |
    Published 02 November 2018
    Fact Checked
    Medically reviewed by Dr. Ruth Arumala, Obstetrician and gynecologist, gynecologic and cosmetic surgeon, Texas, US
    Written by Kate Hollowood
    Flo Fact-Checking Standards

    Every piece of content at Flo Health adheres to the highest editorial standards for language, style, and medical accuracy. To learn what we do to deliver the best health and lifestyle insights to you, check out our content review principles.

    Find out how to know if you’ve got gonorrhea and how to manage it with advice from a Flo expert. Plus, some members of Flo’s Secret Chats community who have had gonorrhea share their experiences.

    Whether you’ve noticed symptoms or have had unprotected sex, worrying about whether you’ve got gonorrhea — or any sexually transmitted infection (STI) for that matter — can be very distressing. 

    But even if you do have the infection, gonorrhea is one of the most common STIs and can be treated with a single dose of medication

    So, what does it feel like if you have it? Here, a Flo expert — and some members of Flo’s Secret Chats (a safe space in our app to anonymously chat about health) who have had gonorrhea — share everything you need to know.

    Half of Americans will catch an STI*

    You're not alone. Learn more about symptoms and treatment in the Flo app. *Source: KFF

    Key takeaways

    • Gonorrhea often doesn’t have any obvious signs, with almost 50% of women having no symptoms at all. 
    • When they do appear, the most common symptoms among women are unusual discharge, pain when you’re peeing, and abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as between periods or after sex.  
    • It’s important to get tested if you think someone may have given you gonorrhea. For many women, such as those who are under 25 or have more than one partner, health care providers recommend doing a screening every year just in case.

    What is gonorrhea? Symptoms of gonorrhea in women

    Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection of the genitals. However, the bacteria can also grow in your mouth, throat, eyes, and anus, leading to symptoms in these areas, too. 

    Often, gonorrhea doesn’t cause any symptoms, especially for women. In fact, almost half of women with gonorrhea don’t experience any signs of the infection. 

    That’s why it’s so important to keep up with regular STI testing, as this Flo user’s story illustrates: “I’m a freshman in college, and I just recently went in for an annual checkup,” they explained on Secret Chats.

    “Turns out I was infected with gonorrhea and chlamydia. I didn’t have any symptoms, so I’m glad I had my annual because it would have possibly gone unknown. The guy who gave it to me showed no symptoms either. He was just as shocked as me.” 

    If you do get gonorrhea symptoms, these usually start within 10 days of being infected, but they can also appear several months later.

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    In Flo's friendly and anonymous closed community, Secret Chats

    What does gonorrhea feel like?

    “If a woman does have symptoms, they tend to be vaginal or vulvar irritation or inflammation, or abnormal vaginal discharge,” says Flo expert Dr. Sara Twogood, obstetrician and gynecologist, Cedars-Sinai Medical Group, California, US. You may also notice pain when you pee.  

    These symptoms can be mild and are often mistaken for a bladder or vaginal infection. “There can be some generalized discomfort in the pelvis,” says Dr. Twogood. 

    Sometimes gonorrhea can make sex feel different too. If you get any vaginal irritation, it can lead to painful sex or a feeling of burning during sex. It’s worth flagging that this can also be a symptom of chlamydia, another common STI. In fact, people often get gonorrhea and chlamydia together

    What does gonorrhea look like?

    One of the key symptoms of gonorrhea that you can see is unusual vaginal discharge, which can look different in its:

    Tracking your vaginal discharge with an app like Flo can help you spot anything that doesn’t seem right. It can be worrying to spot strange discharge, but the better you know your body, the faster you can act. 

    Take this Flo user’s story, for example: “A day or two after having sex without a condom, I started seeing green discharge, and I knew it wasn’t normal,” they said on Secret Chats. “It made me so insecure. Long story short, I tested positive for gonorrhea and chlamydia.”

    “The reality is STIs are so treatable and can be cured so fast. Just get tested!”

    Another Flo user said that it was “heartbreaking” to get a positive STI result but that once they started treatment, it was all over quickly. “If your discharge is green, run to the doctor!” they said. “I went in for pelvic pain and STI symptoms and found out I had gonorrhea, chlamydia, trichomoniasis, and pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).”

    At first, they found the diagnosis “humiliating.” Thanks to the stigma surrounding STIs, many people feel ashamed when they find out that they have one, even though they are nothing to be embarrassed about. STIs are not only very common; they are all treatable

    As the Flo user explain went on to explain: “It was humiliating, heartbreaking, and terrifying. But luckily, it all cleared up in two weeks after treatment. The reality is STIs are so treatable and can be cured so fast. Just get tested!”

    Does gonorrhea make you bleed?

    Another symptom of gonorrhea is abnormal vaginal bleeding, which typically happens in between your periods or after sex. You should always get any bleeding like this checked out by your doctor.

    Does gonorrhea make you sick? 

    As we’ve seen, gonorrhea symptoms (if there are any) are often mild, but the infection can cause more serious health complications if it’s left untreated. That’s why getting tested as soon as possible is important if you have any worries or suspicions. The most common issues include:

    Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) 

    If a gonorrhea infection spreads to the uterus, uterine tubes, or ovaries, it becomes a condition called pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). It can take anything from just a few days to a few weeks for gonorrhea to develop into PID. The most common symptom of PID is pain in your lower belly, but it can cause other symptoms, including:  

    • Chills or a fever
    • Irregular periods
    • Nausea and vomiting 
    • Abnormal discharge that’s usually yellow or green with an unusual odor 
    • Painful sex
    • Pain when peeing 

    When it’s caught early, PID will usually clear up quickly with antibiotics. However, untreated PID can permanently damage your reproductive organs and, in some cases, lead to infertility. In fact, tubal factor infertility (primarily caused by PID) accounts for approximately 30% of cases of infertility. PID can also increase the risk of ectopic pregnancy, which is when a fertilized egg implants in your uterine tubes rather than the uterus.

    This can understandably sound terrifying, but it’s worth emphasizing that not all women with PID develop infertility. Only around 10% to 20% of untreated gonorrhea cases will turn into PID, and just 8% of those with PID will experience infertility caused by damage to their uterine tubes. 

    So, while it’s important to be fully aware of the potential long-term consequences of gonorrhea and PID, once you’re on the case with testing and treatment, you’ll most likely be able to clear any infection before serious issues have a chance to develop. 

    Pregnancy complications

    Untreated gonorrhea can be harmful to your baby if you have the infection when you’re pregnant. It has been linked to miscarriage, premature birth, low birth weight, and complications around labor. Your baby can also catch the infection as they pass through the birth canal. 

    This can be very worrying to hear if you’re expecting but know that because of these risks, your doctor will screen you for gonorrhea at your very first prenatal health visit. That means they should be able to catch and treat a gonorrhea infection before it causes any issues.

    Can gonorrhea affect your period?

    It might seem like gonorrhea can affect your period, as it can cause bleeding between periods and after sex. But this bleeding is caused by the cervix getting infected rather than the uterus lining shedding (aka your period). 

    Less commonly, gonorrhea can make periods heavier. But there’s currently no evidence suggesting that gonorrhea can impact how regular your period is.

    Can you get tested for gonorrhea while on your period?

    Yes, you can — so don’t let your period hold you back from getting tested ASAP. 

    The tests for gonorrhea are sensitive enough that being on your period won’t usually impact the result. But Dr. Twogood says, “It may not be as accurate depending on how heavy the blood flow is,” so chat with your doctor about the best time to take a test. You can always repeat it later if you want extra reassurance. You can also take a urine test, so try not to worry.

    How do you get gonorrhea?

    So, now that you know about the possible signs of gonorrhea, what can you do to avoid it? Well, any sexually active person can catch the infection, which is caused by a bacteria that’s spread through the genitals via vaginal fluid or semen. This can happen during vaginal, anal, and oral sex or through sharing sex toys with an infected person. 

    The best way to protect yourself from catching gonorrhea is to always use condoms. When it comes to oral sex, using a dental dam (a thin piece of plastic that creates a barrier between the mouth and penis or vulva) can also offer protection.

    But it’s important to know that condoms can’t offer complete protection against gonorrhea and other types of STIs. These infections are easily transmissible, and the only way to eliminate your chances of getting an STI is to avoid all vaginal, anal, and oral sex. Understandably, this isn’t a realistic option for most people, which is why it’s important not to beat yourself up if you do end up catching an STI one day. 

    After all, these infections are incredibly common, with one in five people in the United States having an STI at any given time. Getting the right treatment as soon as you can is the best way to protect yourself from any long-term consequences.

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    How long can you have gonorrhea without knowing?

    “You can have gonorrhea for a long time without knowing!” says Dr. Twogood. “Sometimes, gonorrhea infections never become symptomatic. This is why it’s important to be screened, to stop symptoms from developing, and prevent spreading to other people.” 

    If you think you might have gonorrhea, whether it’s because you’ve spotted symptoms or have slept with someone who could have it, you should get tested as soon as you can. 

    Some people are at greater risk of catching gonorrhea and should get tested regularly whether they’re worried they’ve got it or not. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that sexually active women should get tested every year if: 

    • You are under 25 years old 
    • You are older than 25 but have multiple sex partners 

    If you haven’t had an STI test before, they’re pretty straightforward and shouldn’t hurt. The screening for gonorrhea will involve either a urine or swab test and can happen through your regular health care provider, at a public health clinic, or by taking an at-home test.

    Does gonorrhea go away?

    There’s no way around it: You need to get treatment if you catch gonorrhea. “It is an infection and will not go away on its own,” says Dr. Twogood. “Untreated gonorrhea can take several paths. It can be and remain asymptomatic (no symptoms), it can cause progressive and persistent symptoms of abnormal vaginal discharge or vaginal irritation and inflammation, or it can progress to PID.” 

    Gonorrhea is usually treated with an antibiotic injection in your bottom, thigh, or one of your veins. To avoid passing it to anyone else, it’s important not to have sex (even with a condom) until seven days after finishing treatment.

    Your partner or partners will need to get tested for gonorrhea too if you have it. Telling someone they might have an STI can be really difficult, but it’s so important for your sexual health and theirs. It can help to be open and talk about STIs with them from the start so the subject feels less taboo. We’ve got more tips on how to have that conversation

    And always keep in mind that STIs like gonorrhea are very common: Half the US population will get an STI at some point during their lifetime. What you’re going through is more normal than it probably feels like right now and is definitely nothing to be ashamed of.

    References

    Ambildhuke, Ketki, et al. “A Review of Tubal Factors Affecting Fertility and Its Management.” Cureus, vol. 14, no. 11, 1 Nov. 2022, doi:10.7759/cureus.30990.

    “Can I Test Whilst I’m Having My Period?” Sexual Health London, www.shl.uk/faq/25. Accessed 19 Mar. 2024.

    “Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, and Syphilis.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Jan. 2021, www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/chlamydia-gonorrhea-and-syphilis.

    “Condom Fact Sheet in Brief.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/condomeffectiveness/brief.html. Accessed 19 Mar. 2024.

    “Dental Dam.” Cleveland Clinic, my.clevelandclinic.org/health/drugs/22887-dental-dam. Accessed 19 Mar. 2024.