What you need to know about gonorrhoea as cases hit record high

Couple in bed kissing. (Getty Images)
Cases of gonorrhoea in England are at their highest levels since records began. (Getty Images)

The number of gonorrhoea cases in England are at the highest level ever recorded, worrying new stats have revealed.

Annual figures from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) showed diagnoses of the STI rose 7.5% - from 79,268 in 2022 to 85,223 in 2023.

The number of gonorrhoea diagnoses in 2023 was the largest annual number reported since records began in 1918.

Overall, figures show there were 401,800 new cases of STIs diagnosed in 2023 – a rise of 4.7% since 2022.

Commenting on the findings Dr Bhavini Shah, sexual health expert and GP at LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor says: “UK Health Security Agency (HSA) figures revealed this week that diagnoses of gonorrhoea rose 7.5% last year. This means instances of the STI are at the highest level ever recorded."

Some of the rise may be due to an increase in the number of people having STI screening.

“The increase in diagnoses is likely to be attributed to two things. Firstly, UKHSA reported an 8.3% increase in sexual health screenings, - 4.6% up on 2019," Dr Shah explains.

“This is likely to be coupled with high levels of transmission. The Local Government Association (LGA) reported earlier in the year that cases of gonorrhoea increased by over 50% between 2021 and 2022.”

Here's everything you need to know about gonorrhoea from risk factors to treatments and symptoms to look out for.

Experts are predicting a rise in STI cases once lockdown restrictions are eased. (Getty Images)
Experts are predicting a rise in STI cases once lockdown restrictions are eased. (Getty Images)

Gonorrhoea is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that affects both men and women and is passed on through bodily fluids such as vaginal fluids or discharge from the penis.

The NHS says gonorrhoea is easily passed between people through:

  • unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex

  • sharing vibrators or other sex toys that have not been washed or covered with a new condom each time they're used

STIs like gonorrhoea are often symptomless, which is why they’re easily spread.

“Symptoms of gonorrhoea usually appear within two weeks of being infected," explains Dr Shah.

"In women, common symptoms include an unusual vaginal discharge (thin or watery and green or yellow in colour); pain or burning when peeing; pain or tenderness in the abdominal area; bleeding between periods, heavier periods and bleeding after sex.

“In men, symptoms may include unusual discharge from the penis (white, yellow or green), pain or burning when peeing; swelling of the foreskin.

"Another symptom is pain or tenderness in the testicles, although this is rare."

It is important to note that about 10% of infected men and 50% of infected women do not experience any obvious symptoms.

"This is why regular STI Testing is necessary, especially if you’re particularly at risk," Dr Shah adds.

Dr Shah says anyone who is sexually active can catch gonorrhoea.

"But you’re particularly at risk if you regularly change sexual partners or do not use adequate barrier methods of contraception, like condoms, when having sex."

Gonorrhoea is the second most common bacterial STI in the UK after chlamydia.

Previous statistics revealed that in 2019 more than 70,000 people were diagnosed with gonorrhoea in England, with most cases affecting gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men. The most recent stats show gonorrhoea increased 9.4% (37,095 to 40,586) within this group.

Woman visiting a doctor. (Getty Images)
It is important gonorrhoea is treated as soon as possible. (Getty Images)

The NHS says gonorrhoea is usually treated with a single antibiotic injection (usually in the buttocks or thigh). With effective treatment, most of your symptoms should improve within a few days.

It's usually recommended you attend a follow-up appointment a week or 2 after treatment so another test can be carried out to see if you're clear of infection.

You should avoid having sex until you have been told you no longer have the infection.

Previous successful treatment for gonorrhoea does not make you immune to catching it again.

“It’s important to treat gonorrhoea quickly to prevent complications and long-term issues," explains Dr Shah.

"Untreated, it can spread and cause serious problems. For example, although rare, gonorrhoea can spread to the eye if the eye comes into contact with infected discharge from the penis or vaginal fluid.

"Gonorrhoea is also particularly concerning in pregnant women as it can cause miscarriage, premature birth or blindness in the newborn baby.”

Gonorrhoea and other STIs can be successfully prevented by using appropriate contraception and taking other precautions.

"It can be prevented through barrier methods of contraception," Dr Shah advises. "This means the use of condoms or dental dams (a square of latex or plastic used in oral sex).

"You should also wash and cover sex toys with a new condom when sharing them."

If you're worried you may have an STI, visit a sexual health clinic for advice.