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What should I do if I’ve been exposed to gonorrhea?

What should I do if I’ve been exposed to gonorrhea?

Updated on:
February 16, 2022

If you’ve had an encounter where you suspect or know your partner(s) had gonorrhea at the time, don’t panic.

Thousands of Canadians are newly diagnosed with gonorrhea every year, and it’s easily treatable. By getting tested for STIs, you can determine whether you have gonorrhea and access treatment that will cure it .

What are the risks of getting gonorrhea?

The probability of gonorrhea transmission from an infected person with a penis to an uninfected person with a vagina from one sexual encounter is approximately 50-60%. The transmission rate is much lower at 20% when transmitting from a person with a vagina to a person with a penis. These rates are estimated to be similar for penis-to-anus sex (bottoming and topping).

Potential symptoms for gonorrhea

The symptoms typically experienced with gonorrhea include pain or burning when urinating and/or discharge from the penis or vagina. However, many people are asymptomatic and do not experience any signs of infection.

About 10-15% of infected people with penises are asymptomatic, and about 80% of infected people with vaginas show no symptoms at all.

For a complete view of all the potential symptoms associated with gonorrhea, please look at our article about gonorrhea symptoms.

Get tested for gonorrhea.

Usually, the standard testing for gonorrhea involves collecting a urine sample and swabs of the affected area(s). The most thorough method of screening involves collecting urine, in addition to throat swabs, rectal swabs, and genital swabs. Genital swabs collect a sample from the urethral opening of the penis, the cervical opening in the vagina, or the rectum.

Urine tests alone can sometimes miss gonorrhea infections if swabbing is not done. Throat and rectal infections can be overlooked, predominantly when asymptomatic.

If you or your provider suspect the presence of a blood infection, your healthcare provider may also choose to draw your blood to test for gonorrhea.

How urgent is a post-exposure treatment for gonorrhea?

If you receive a gonorrhea diagnosis, it’s essential to start treatment as soon as possible. 

Ensure that your healthcare provider knows that you may have had (or did have) exposure to gonorrhea or if you want a test for STIs.While there is no specific timeline to get treated, the longer gonorrhea remains active in your body, the greater your risks are of complications, including long-term damage. Transmission to other sexual partners will also continue until you are effectively treated. Although these complications are preventable with treatment, it's essential to get tested and treated as soon as possible.

What happens if I don’t get treated?

If you do not get treated for gonorrhea, you'll be at risk of transmitting gonorrhea to sexual partners and increase your likelihood of long-term damage to your health. This can lead to pain and infertility.

Can I have sex if I’ve been exposed to gonorrhea?

After being exposed to or diagnosed with gonorrhea, you should abstain from sexual activity until you are treated and your healthcare provider advises you that  you can resume sexual activity.

Do I need to tell my partner(s)?

Gonorrhea is a reportable infection in Canada, which means that public health authorities will be informed of your diagnosis. You are not in any trouble. This reporting is strictly medical and is intended for tracking and treating STIs.

If you receive a gonorrhea diagnosis, your healthcare provider will ask that you inform your past sexual partners from the last 60 days before you were tested or had any symptoms.

If you’d rather not contact partners yourself, a public health nurse can quickly reach them to ensure they can get tested and treated for gonorrhea. Often, partners notified of possible exposure will get treated for gonorrhea before receiving their results. To maintain discretion and anonymity, the nurse will not use your name or information when contacting your partners.

How do I tell my partner(s)?

If you decide to contact your previous sexual partners yourself, be direct and honest. You can let them know that you contracted gonorrhea, when it was diagnosed, and to seek testing for themselves. Most people with gonorrhea are asymptomatic, so getting tested regularly is the only way to confirm an STI infection.

We understand this can be a somewhat awkward chat. Remember, notifying your partners is the best way to protect them and others from possibly passing gonorrhea. Although there’s a lot of social stigmas associated with STIs, there’s nothing to be ashamed about as they can be a regular part of being sexually active.

Reviewed by:
Dr. Caley Shukalek

Caley is passionate about evidence-based, patient-centred care, including telemedicine that can provide high quality care from wherever a patient may choose.

He helped create Alberta's PrEP guidelines and works as a specialist in General Internal Medicine with additional training in sexual health, including HIV and sexually transmitted infections.

He holds an Masters of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University, an MD from the University of Calgary and an MSc from the University of Alberta.