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Can you have gonorrhea for 2 years?

Gonorrhea is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) that can cause serious health problems if left untreated. It is normal to wonder how long gonorrhea can last if not treated properly. This article provides an in-depth look at gonorrhea, including how long it can persist and the health risks involved.

What is Gonorrhea?

Gonorrhea is an infection caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae. It is spread through unprotected oral, anal, or vaginal sex with an infected partner. Gonorrhea can infect the genitals, rectum, throat, and eyes.

Some key facts about gonorrhea:

  • Caused by Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacteria
  • Spread through unprotected oral, anal, or vaginal sex
  • Infects the genitals, rectum, throat, and eyes
  • Symptoms include burning urination, discharge, bleeding
  • Can be asymptomatic
  • Treatable with antibiotics

Gonorrhea is a common infection, especially among young people ages 15-24 years old. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates over 800,000 new gonorrheal infections occur each year in the United States.

Symptoms of Gonorrhea

Many people with gonorrhea are asymptomatic, meaning they do not have any symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they can differ slightly between men and women.

Symptoms in Men

  • Burning or pain when urinating
  • White, yellow, or green discharge from the penis
  • Painful or swollen testicles

Symptoms in Women

  • Burning or pain when urinating
  • Increased vaginal discharge
  • Vaginal bleeding between periods
  • Painful sexual intercourse
  • Abdominal pain

Rectal infections may cause discharge, anal itching, soreness, bleeding, or painful bowel movements. Throat infections usually do not cause symptoms.

Complications of Gonorrhea

When left untreated, gonorrhea can spread through the bloodstream and cause more serious health problems:

  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) – an infection of the uterus, fallopian tubes or ovaries that can lead to pelvic pain, infertility and ectopic pregnancy.
  • Epididymitis – an inflammation of the coiled tube (epididymis) at the back of the testicles which can cause fever, pain and swelling of the testicles.
  • Infertility – permanent damage to the reproductive tract that can cause infertility in both women and men.
  • Disseminated gonococcal infection (DGI) – a widespread infection that can affect the joints, skin and heart valves.
  • Eye infections – gonorrhea can spread to the eyes and cause conjunctivitis, an infection of the membrane lining the eyelids.

In rare cases, untreated gonorrhea can spread to the blood and joints which becomes life-threatening. It is important to get tested and treated quickly to avoid these complications.

How Long Does Gonorrhea Last Without Treatment?

If left completely untreated, gonorrhea can potentially persist for years. However, the duration varies from person to person and also depends on where the infection is located.

On average, untreated gonorrhea may last:

  • Genital gonorrhea: 4-6 weeks
  • Rectal gonorrhea: 3-6 months
  • Pharyngeal (throat) gonorrhea: 3-6 months

The infection tends to last longer in the throat and rectum because gonorrhea bacteria thrive in warm, moist areas. The genital tract offers a less hospitable environment.

While gonorrhea potentially can persist for years, most infections will naturally clear within 3-18 months even without treatment. However, damage done during this time is usually permanent.

Can Gonorrhea Come Back After Treatment?

Yes, it is possible to contract gonorrhea again after being treated. This occurs either through reinfection or relapse.

Reinfection

Reinfection means catching gonorrhea again after having sex with a new infected partner. This can happen immediately after finishing treatment for the initial infection. Using condoms consistently after finishing treatment can help prevent reinfection.

Relapse

Relapse refers to the original gonorrhea infection returning after treatment. This occurs when antibiotics fail to completely eliminate all bacteria. To prevent relapse, follow-up testing is recommended 3-6 months after finishing treatment.

Factors That Increase Duration of Untreated Gonorrhea

Certain factors can increase the amount of time gonorrhea persists without proper treatment:

  • Concurrent STIs – Having multiple STIs makes treatment more complicated. For example, gonorrhea and chlamydia often occur together.
  • Improper antibiotic use – Not taking the full antibiotic prescription as directed can lead to persistent infection.
  • Re-exposure to bacteria – Having sex with an untreated partner can result in repeated infection.
  • Weak immune system – Conditions like HIV/AIDS make it harder to fight off gonorrhea bacteria.
  • Location of infection – Gonorrhea of the throat and rectum lasts longer without treatment.

Prompt testing and correct antibiotic treatment according to CDC guidelines gives the best chance of fully recovering from gonorrhea.

Diagnosing Gonorrhea

There are several methods available to diagnose gonorrhea:

Nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT)

This is the preferred test for gonorrhea. NAAT detects the genetic material of the bacteria. It can be performed on a urine sample or swab from the infected site. NAAT provides accurate results and also tests for chlamydia.

Gram stain

Looking at discharge under a microscope can reveal gram-negative diplococci bacteria, indicating gonorrhea infection. This allows quick diagnosis, but is less accurate than NAAT.

Gonorrhea culture

Culturing the discharge and testing for growth of gonorrhea bacteria is very accurate. However, it requires several days to get results. Cultures also determine antibiotic sensitivity to guide treatment.

Other tests like a blood test or cervical/urethral swab may be used. Localized infections are treated based on symptoms, exposure history and NAAT results. Seek medical advice about testing if concerned.

Treating Gonorrhea

Gonorrhea is treated and cured with antibiotics. The CDC recommends a single 500 mg intramuscular dose of ceftriaxone injection along with a single 1 g oral dose of azithromycin or doxycycline 100 mg twice daily for 7 days.

Dual therapy with ceftriaxone and azithromycin or doxycycline is effective against antibiotic resistant strains. Localized infections may also be treated with other antibiotics.

All sexual partners from the past 2 months should be notified, tested and treated. Avoid sexual contact for 7 days until treatment is completed. Follow up testing is important to confirm the infection is cured.

Preventing Gonorrhea

Practicing safe sex is crucial to avoid contracting gonorrhea. Protective measures include:

  • Using condoms correctly every time you have sex
  • Limiting the number of sexual partners
  • Asking about STI testing history and status of partners
  • Getting regularly tested for STIs
  • Abstaining from sex completely

Getting the HPV vaccine as recommended can help prevent some cases. If exposed to gonorrhea, get tested and treated right away to avoid complications.

Key Takeaways

  • Untreated gonorrhea can potentially persist for years, but most genital infections resolve in 4-6 weeks.
  • Throat and rectal infections often last longer, 3-6 months without treatment.
  • Permanent reproductive damage usually occurs before the infection resolves on its own.
  • Symptoms may disappear but gonorrhea can still spread to other areas if left untreated.
  • Get tested and treated with antibiotics according to CDC guidelines to cure gonorrhea.

The Bottom Line

Gonorrhea is a common STI that can have severe consequences if left untreated. While it may persist for 1-2 years, it is best to get tested and start appropriate antibiotic treatment right away. Successful treatment reduces the risk of complications and prevents further spread of the infection.

Practice safe sexual behaviors, get regular STI screening, and take medications as prescribed. See a doctor for any unusual discharge, burning or pain during urination or sex. With prompt care, gonorrhea can be cured.