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how long can gonorrhea stay dormant

By: RSC Editorial Team

July 2, 2023

How Long Can Gonorrhea Stay Dormant?

Gonorrhea is a very common sexually transmitted disease that occurs in people who contract the Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacterium. According to CDC estimates, in a typical year, N. gonorrhoeae infects about 1.6 million people in the U.S., over half of them under 24. This makes it worth your time to learn more about the disease.

Although gonorrhea is a widespread STD, many sexually active people know little about it and often ask questions like “How long can gonorrhea stay dormant?” and “What happens if gonorrhea goes untreated?”

Many people experience an asymptomatic infection or very mild, nonspecific symptoms, so a rapid STD test is your one foolproof way to detect gonorrhea and get timely treatment recommendations. If you believe you could have been exposed to gonorrhea, please get tested as soon as possible to protect yourself and your sexual partners.

Read on for everything you need to know about the symptoms, possible complications, treatment, and prevention of gonorrhea.

How Gonorrhea Affects the Body

You can contract gonorrhea through unprotected sex, including vaginal, oral, and anal. Infected mothers could also transmit gonorrhea to their babies during childbirth. N. gonorrhoeae targets moist areas like the vagina, anus, urethra, throat, eyes, and the female reproductive tract (cervix, uterus, and fallopian tubes).

Early Stages of Gonorrhea: Incubation Period and Acute Symptoms

Gonorrhea has a brief incubation period of up to 10 days. After that, infected individuals may start experiencing symptoms of the STI, but about 50% of all women and 10% of men infected with N. gonorrhoeae initially won’t feel any effects, or experience common symptoms attributable to various causes.

During the acute stage of gonorrhea, women may experience:

  • Thin yellow or greenish vaginal discharge
  • Pain while urinating
  • Heavier, more painful periods than usual
  • Bleeding or spotting between periods
  • Tenderness or pain in the lower abdomen

Men may experience:

  • White, yellow, or green penile discharge
  • Testicular pain or tenderness
  • Painful urination

Both males and females may experience anal irritation, discomfort, or discharge. Gonorrhea in the eyes could cause pain, swelling, unusual discharge, and conjunctivitis.

As you can see, many of these symptoms aren’t specific to gonorrhea. It would be easy to pin these effects on urinary tract infection (UTI), bacterial vaginosis, parasites, and many other common health issues unrelated to STDs.

Complications From Gonorrhea

Like other untreated STDs, gonorrhea can cause an array of serious and potentially irreversible complications over time. 

In women, untreated gonorrhea may spread throughout the entire reproductive tract, including the cervix, fallopian tubes, and uterus, and cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). Gonorrhea could cause permanent infertility or lead to fallopian tube scarring or blocking, which can raise the risk of ectopic pregnancy. Women may also experience chronic pelvic pain, very painful periods, and an overall reduction in quality of life without understanding why their health is deteriorating.

In men, gonorrhea could lead to epididymitis, or inflammation of the tubes carrying semen from the testicles. Symptoms of epididymitis include swelling, acute pain, and often fever. Epididymitis could become chronic and lead to abscesses, irreversible damage to the testicular tissue, and infertility.

Gonorrhea can also spread beyond the sexual organs. The infection can move into your skin, joints, and internal organs. If N. gonorrhoeae enters your bloodstream, the condition could be life-threatening. Babies born to mothers with gonorrhea are also at risk of various complications, especially eye infections that could cause permanent blindness.

Diagnosing Gonorrhea

Diagnosing gonorrhea can be tricky without symptoms specific to STDs, like genital warts. Even if you suspect you may have been exposed to N. gonorrhoeae and experience pain, swelling, or discharge, you’ll need lab-certified results to confirm the diagnosis.

What Happens During the Incubation Period of Gonorrhea?

To answer “How long can gonorrhea stay dormant?” let’s explain how gonorrhea spreads and manifests.

N. gonorrhoeaethrives on mucosal surfaces, like the sexual organs, and easily attaches to sperm. When an infected person has unprotected sex with an uninfected partner, N. gonorrhoeae gets an opportunity to spread to a new host. The bacteria then colonize and invade the new target’s epithelium.

The bacteria establish and multiply during the incubation period, which takes 2-5 days on average. Then, the infected person may experience the symptoms we’ve listed above, but gonorrhea can also remain asymptomatic or present mild symptoms, especially in women.

The Process of Diagnosing Gonorrhea

Diagnosing gonorrhea usually starts with an appointment in a certified clinic like one of the Rapid STD Testing centers. A healthcare provider will ask about your sexual activity and the symptoms you experience. You may also undergo a pelvic exam.

To know for sure whether you have gonorrhea, the healthcare provider will need to collect a sample of cells and send it to a lab for analysis. It’s possible to do this through a urine test, a vaginal, anal, or throat swab, or a fluid sample from the penis. Women may get home STD tests including vaginal swabs that later go to a lab. The health care provider may also recommend getting tested for other STDs, like chlamydia or asymptomatic HIV infection.

When you get tested for gonorrhea at a Rapid STD Testing center, you’ll receive accurate results within 24 to 72 hours. We protect all our patients’ privacy with secure identity verification, so you’ll never need to worry about exposing your results to someone else.

If a certified lab test reveals you have gonorrhea, a doctor will prescribe antibiotics. Remember that while antibiotic treatment can clear a gonorrhea infection, it can’t undo the damage gonorrhea has already caused in your body, like fallopian tube scarring, damage to the testicles, or infertility.

Can Gonorrhea Lay Dormant for 20 Years?

The short answer is not exactly. Gonorrhea isn’t a viral STD like herpes or a chronic HIV infection, which has a latent stage and can stay inactive for many years. But if you’re asking whether gonorrhea can go undetected for a long time, then yes, you can have gonorrhea for years or possibly decades and not know it, even while the bacteria wreaks havoc on your body.

For instance, you may not suspect you have an STD if you’re in a monogamous relationship and don’t know your significant other has contracted gonorrhea from previous partners. You could attribute your symptoms to another known health issue and never consider getting tested for gonorrhea until you experience serious inexplicable issues.

Treatment for Gonorrhea

Here’s the good news: Gonorrhea is fully curable, and a rapid, efficient treatment course will usually prevent any complications associated with this common STD.

The default treatment for gonorrhea is a single intramuscular shot of 500 mg Ceftriaxone. However, if you’re allergic to Ceftriaxone, your healthcare provider may prescribe Gentamicin combined with Azithromycin. Azithromycin combined with Ceftriaxone used to be the treatment CDC recommended for gonorrhea, but the guidelines changed because of increasing bacterial resistance.

If STD testing reveals you also have chlamydia, which often occurs with gonorrhea, you may also need to undergo a seven-day oral treatment course of doxycycline. Make sure you take any medication exactly as prescribed, even when your symptoms start improving.

Depending on when you contacted gonorrhea and your sexual activity while you were infected, your sexual partner(s) may also have to undergo testing and treatment. You could become re-infected if you receive treatment but your partner doesn’t.

How Can You Know Treatment for Gonorrhea Has Worked?

Health organizations have expressed increasing concern over antibiotic-resistant strains of gonorrhea. If N. gonorrhoeae develops resistance to Ceftriaxone, curing gonorrhea could become much more challenging.

Currently, standard gonorrhea treatment doesn’t include a test of cure unless you have a gonorrhea infection in the throat or your symptoms persist despite treatment. However, since reinfection with gonorrhea is a common concern, you’ll need to undergo retesting three months after you complete your initial treatment, even if you and your sex partner(s) experience no symptoms.

Gonorrhea symptoms like pain, swelling, discharge, etc., will usually resolve within a few days after you receive antibiotic treatment, but you’ll need to abstain from sexual activity for at least a week after your Ceftriaxone shot.

Will Gonorrhea Go Away on Its Own?

No, gonorrhea won’t resolve without treatment. Even if you experience no symptoms for a long time, or if symptoms subside for a while, the bacteria will remain in your body and continue damaging your reproductive system and other organs. You may remain unaware of the extent of the damage until you run into serious health issues or until you try to conceive and discover you are infertile.

Delaying treatment for gonorrhea also exposes you to an increased risk of contracting HIV and developing an acute HIV infection. According to official data, close to 1.2 million Americans currently live with HIV, even while researchers work hard on developing an AIDS vaccine.

Sexual health testing and prompt treatment are especially vital if you’re pregnant or planning to conceive. If you deliver a baby while infected with gonorrhea, the baby will need to undergo antibiotic treatment to prevent neonatal blindness and other complications associated with gonorrhea.

Preventing Gonorrhea

“How can I prevent gonorrhea?” is another common question about this prevalent STD, together with “How long can gonorrhea stay dormant?”

Before we discuss gonorrhea prevention, let’s mention that you can’t contract gonorrhea by sharing drinks or using the same bath or pool as an infected person. While STDs on clothes are an occasional concern, N. gonorrhoeae can’t survive without a human host beyond a few minutes, so you’re extremely unlikely to contract gonorrhea by, for example, using a towel an infected person has used. Contracting oropharyngeal gonorrhea through kissing is possible but very rare.

While abstinence is the only 100% secure way to prevent STDs, a few simple safety practices will help you reduce the risks and complications of gonorrhea:

  • Use a condom every time you have sex, especially with new partners.
  • Avoid having sex with anyone who exhibits potential symptoms of gonorrhea or other STDs.
  • Avoid any type of sexual activity if you believe there’s a chance you may be infected.
  • If you and your partner decide to stop using protection, make sure you both get tested for gonorrhea and other common STDs first.
  • Go in for STD testing if you and your partner are planning to conceive.

Pay attention to common symptoms of gonorrhea, like vaginal or penile discharge, burning or pain during urination, lower abdominal pain, unusually heavy periods, or painful intercourse. As a preventive measure, we recommend getting tested for gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, and other common STDs at least once a year. You may need more frequent testing (once every three to six months) if you have multiple partners.

What If You Already Know You Have Gonorrhea?

If you recently got tested and discovered you have gonorrhea, abstain from sexual activity until you complete the recommended treatment course. Be open with your partner and let them know about your diagnosis so they’ll also undergo testing.

If you’re in a monogamous relationship, remember that contracting gonorrhea doesn’t mean you or your partner have been unfaithful. Unless you undergo regular STD testing, it’s possible you became infected years ago and never knew it until now.

Protect Yourself Against Dormant STDs With Fast and Private Testing

Have you had unprotected sex? Do you suspect you may have gonorrhea or wonder how long gonorrhea can stay dormant? The only way to know for sure is to get tested.

A fast and confidential 10-panel STD test by Rapid STD Testing detects a range of common STDs, including gonorrhea, chlamydia, herpes, and HIV.

Get answers quickly, gain peace of mind, protect your sexual health, and ensure effective treatment with same-day STD testing in one of our 4,000 testing centers across the U.S. Call us at 1-866-872-1888 or schedule a test online today.


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By: RSC Editorial Team
July 2, 2023

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