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Gonorrhoea: What is it and how to avoid catching it

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Cases of gonorrhoea have spiked among young people in the UK (Picture: Getty Images)

A record number of people in England were diagnosed with gonorrhoea last year, according to annual UK Health Security Agency figures.

Diagnoses rose a staggering 7.5%, going from 79,268 in 2022 to 85,223 in 2023 — and overall cases of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are on the rise too, up 4.5% over the same time period.

The groups most likely to be diagnosed were 15 to 24-year-olds, men who have sex with men, and black Caribbean people, while previous data showed inner London boroughs were particular hotspots.

While the increase can be put down, in part, to an increase in regular diagnostic testing, The British Association of Sexual Health and HIV said it was a ‘concerning indicator’ of pressure on services.

Not only can gonorrhoea cause infertility, consultant epidemiologist Dr Hamish Mohammed says: ‘STIs can have a major impact on your health, regardless of your age, gender or sexual orientation.’

Especially given recent incidences of medication-resistant super-gonorrhoea, it’s a good idea to learn about what gonorrhoea actually is, and how you can avoid catching it.

What is gonorrhoea?

Gonorrhoea is a really common STI, especially among young people. It’s caused by the bacterium neisseria gonorrhoeae. 

While it can be treated, gonorrhoea can lead to severe health problems if it is left untreated, especially for women. 

‘In women, untreated gonorrhoea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), a severe infection of the reproductive organs that can cause infertility and chronic pelvic pain.’ explains Dr Babak Ashrafi, a general practitioner specialising in sexual health, working with Superdrug Online Doctor.

In men, Babak tells Metro.co.uk, ‘untreated gonorrhoea can cause epididymitis, a painful inflammation of the testicles.’

He adds: ‘Gonorrhoea can also increase the risk of contracting and transmitting other STIs such as HIV, and spread to the bloodstream, causing disseminated gonococcal infection (DGI), a life-threatening condition leading to clinical manifestations such as septic arthritis and skin rashes.’

How is gonorrhoea transmitted?



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You can catch gonorrhoea through unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex, since it’s transmitted via discharge from the genitals. 

‘Gonorrhoea can also be transmitted from a pregnant mother to her baby,’ adds Babak.

‘As the bacteria cannot survive outside the body for long, you will not catch this STI from non-invasive bodily contact like kissing or hugging.’ 

What are the symptoms?

According to Babak, symptoms of gonorrhoea include: 

  • discharge from the penis or vagina
  • pain or burning during urination
  • pain during sexual intercourse for women
  • abnormal vaginal bleeding between periods

However, he says, ‘some people with gonorrhoea may not experience any symptoms at all.’

In fact, one in 10 men and almost half of women do not experience any symptoms.

How can you avoid getting gonorrhoea? 

Considering there are often no symptoms, avoiding catching gonorrhoea is a case of always having protected sex, especially with new partners, and even during oral sex (via dental dams or condoms).

‘It is important to remember to always use a condom, do not share sex toys and ensure you get regularly tested for sexually transmitted diseases,’ says Babak.



It’s not just gonorrhoea

Cases of syphilis are highest in Middlesbrough, the Isle of Wight, Darlington and Redcar & Cleveland — and the number of chlamydia cases has also increased in a third of local authorities.

Does treatment always work?

If gonorrhoea is not treated correctly or if the infection is resistant to the prescribed antibiotics, it can persist in the body. 

‘Treatment failure can be a result of some strains of gonorrhoea that have become resistant to antibiotics, incorrect diagnosis or if you continue to have unprotected sex with an infected partner,’ says Babak, 

‘If you have been treated for gonorrhoea but your symptoms persist or return, it’s important to seek medical advice immediately. 

‘Your doctor may recommend additional testing to determine the cause of treatment failure and prescribe a different antibiotic regimen.’ 

What about ‘super-gonorrhoea’? 

Antibiotic resistant strains of gonorrhoea are often referred to as super-gonorrhoea

‘To prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhoea, it is essential to practise safe sex, get tested regularly for STIs, and use antibiotics only as prescribed by a healthcare provider,’ says Babak.

‘Additionally, it is important to inform your healthcare provider if you have recently travelled to areas where antibiotic-resistant gonorrhoea is prevalent.’

Remember, STIs are normal and it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Make sure you speak to a healthcare professional and get treated ASAP if you think you’ve got gonorrhoea.

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