Disseminated gonorrhea, or systemic gonococcal infection, is a serious complication of the STI gonorrhea. It happens when the infection spreads through your bloodstream to another area of your body.

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Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Anyone can contract it. The infection typically affects one or more of the following body parts:

  • urethra
  • throat
  • rectum
  • cervix

Newborns may also contract the bacteria during childbirth if their mother has an untreated infection. Untreated gonorrhea infections in babies typically affect the eyes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 583,405 cases of gonorrhea reported in 2018, a 63 percent increase since 2014.

Treatment for gonorrhea is effective, but many cases go undetected. This may be due to several factors, including asymptomatic infections and access to sexual healthcare.

Over time, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea can spread to the bloodstream and other parts of the body. This can lead to a serious medical condition known as systemic gonococcal infection, also known as disseminated gonococcal infection (DGI).

Not everyone with gonorrhea will have symptoms in the early stages of the infection. However, you may experience:

  • thick discharge from the penis
  • increased vaginal discharge
  • painful urination or burning with urination
  • spotting between menstrual periods
  • swollen or painful testicles
  • painful bowel movements
  • anal itching
  • anal discharge
  • sore throat

When gonorrhea infections aren’t treated, the bacteria can spread, causing more symptoms. Specific symptoms depend on the area of the body affected by the bacteria.

Symptoms that commonly occur with DGI include:

  • fever or chills
  • feeling ill or generally unwell (malaise)
  • pain in the joints
  • swelling of the joints
  • pain in the tendons of the wrists or heels
  • a skin rash with pink or red spots that become filled with pus

Gonorrhea is an STI that can spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sexual intercourse that’s not protected by a condom or other barrier method.

DGI can develop within 2 weeks of contracting gonorrhea. Once in the bloodstream, gonorrhea can affect various tissues and cause permanent damage.

Although gonorrhea is a very common STI, certain people have a higher risk for developing gonorrhea. These include:

  • people who have sex without a condom or other barrier method
  • people under 25 years old
  • people with multiple sex partners

Your doctor will check to see whether you have gonorrhea or symptoms of DGI.

To test for gonorrhea, your doctor will take a sample or culture from the affected area. They will then send the sample to a lab where it’s analyzed for the presence of gonorrhea bacteria. Results are often available within 24 hours.

Cultures for testing can be obtained from:

  • the blood
  • a skin lesion
  • fluid from the joints
  • the cervix
  • the throat
  • the anus
  • the urethra

If your test results come back positive for gonorrhea, your doctor may order additional tests to determine whether you have other STIs. Gonorrhea is often diagnosed alongside other STIs, such as chlamydia.

If you think you have gonorrhea, don’t hesitate to get treatment. Untreated gonorrhea can spread and enter the bloodstream, and cause serious complications, such as DGI.

You can develop other complications once the gonorrhea bacteria have entered the bloodstream. These may include:

  • gonococcal arthritis, which involves rashes and inflammation of the joints
  • gonococcal endocarditis, which is damage to the inner lining of the heart muscle
  • gonococcal meningitis, which is an infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord

Other complications of gonorrhea include infertility, as the infection can spread to the fallopian tubes and uterus in women. It can also cause epididymitis in men. Epididymitis is inflammation and swelling of the epididymis, a tube at the back of the testicles.

Untreated gonorrhea can also be passed from mother to baby during childbirth. The infection can cause blindness and scalp sores in babies, but treatment reduces these complications.

Antibiotics treat gonorrhea and DGI. Penicillin was once the primary treatment for gonorrhea, but antibiotic-resistant strains of gonorrhea have made penicillin ineffective for treating this condition.

Treatment for uncomplicated gonorrhea usually involves the use of a single dose of two antibiotics, one by mouth (azithromycin) and one by injection (ceftriaxone).

For DGI, antibiotics are usually given intravenously (through the vein) at first. Treatment for DGI typically lasts 7 days.

If you have allergies or intolerances to first-line antibiotics for gonorrhea and DGI, your doctor can prescribe you alternative options.

Treatment for gonorrhea also involves alerting your sexual partners about your infection. They will need to be tested and treated if they have the infection, too. This can prevent the spread of the condition.

It’s likely that you’ll make a full recovery from gonorrhea and DGI if you start treatment early.

It’s important to seek immediate medical attention if you develop symptoms or suspect a gonorrhea infection. Symptoms typically improve within 1 to 2 days of starting treatment.

Your long-term outlook may not be as good if you don’t seek treatment for your symptoms or don’t follow your doctor’s recommendations for treatment.

Untreated systemic gonococcal infections that affect different areas of the body can cause permanent damage.

Prevention of DGI requires prevention of gonorrhea itself. Not having sex, or abstinence, is the only way to completely prevent this condition.

But if you’re sexually active, you can still take the following steps to avoid gonorrhea:

  • Use barrier methods, like condoms, when you have sex.
  • Get screened regularly for STIs, and ask your sexual partners to get screened, too.
  • If you or your partner experience any STI symptoms, avoid sex until you get checked out by a healthcare provider.
  • If you do contract gonorrhea, always finish your full course of treatment, even if your symptoms improve.