What is disseminated gonorrhea?

Medically reviewed by Neka Miller, PhD on March 26, 2020. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that affects both men and women—typically in the urethra, throat, rectum, and/or cervix. It’s the second most common bacterial STI in America; fortunately, treatment is usually effective once the infection is detected.

Symptoms of gonorrhea can differ depending on the person, and can include abnormal genital discharge, painful or frequent urination, painful bowel movements, and anal itching.

It’s easy to screen for this STI: you can take an at-home chlamydia and gonorrhea test and get your results within days—so you can get treated for gonorrhea as soon as possible, if needed.

However, if a person doesn’t get treated for gonorrhea, the bacteria that causes gonorrhea (Neisseria gonorrhoeae) can spread to the bloodstream and throughout the body, causing a medical condition that’s known as systemic gonococcal infection, disseminated gonococcal infection (DGI), or disseminated gonorrhea.

Disseminated gonococcal infection

Disseminated gonorrhea—which occurs in an estimated 0.5–3% of infected individuals—can happen within two weeks of a gonorrhea infection. When the bacteria spread, disseminated gonorrhea can cause symptoms like fevers, chills, and a general feeling of being unwell. But that’s not all: there are several other health risks associated with disseminated gonorrhea.

How disseminated gonorrhea can affect your health

Gonococcal arthritis

Gonococcal arthritis is inflammation of the joints caused by a disseminated gonococcal infection. It’s a type of septic arthritis—which refers to joint pain and inflammation caused by a bacterial or fungal infection.


Gonococcal endocarditis

Gonococcal endocarditis is a gonococcal infection of the inner lining of the heart chambers and heart valves—known as the endocardium. It occurs when bacteria spread through the bloodstream and attach to this area of the heart, where they can damage or destroy heart valves. A patient with gonococcal endocarditis can have non-specific symptoms, like a rash, fever, chills, or back pain—though most show signs of cardiac abnormalities, like a new heart murmur.


Meningococcal meningitis

Meningococcal meningitis is a rare infection of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms can include fever, headache, aching muscles, a stiff neck, and skin rashes. Though they occur more rarely, nausea and vomiting can also result. If the infection isn't treated, partial paralysis and hearing loss can develop. Ultimately, if the gonorrhea infection progresses and isn't eliminated with antibiotics, meningococcal meningitis is usually fatal. Among adults, college students face the highest risk of meningococcal meningitis.


Infertility and pregnancy issues

In women, a disseminated gonococcal infection can spread to the fallopian tubes and the uterus and result in infertility. It can also cause chronic pelvic pain due to pelvic inflammatory disease.

In pregnant women, the infection can be spread to infants during childbirth and cause scalp sores and blindness. Miscarriage, preterm delivery, and postpartum endometritis can also occur.


Epididymitis

Gonorrhea in men can cause epididymitis to occur, which is the swelling of the epididymis—a part of the body that’s right next to the testicles.


Skin rash

In many people who experience disseminated gonococcal infections, a rash is present that can affect the trunk, limbs, palms, and soles. It can also affect the face, scalp, and mouth. This skin rash can appear as pink or red spots that become filled with pus.

Risk factors

How do you get gonorrhea—and who’s especially at risk? Gonorrhea is a common sexually transmitted disease. People who have unprotected sex, multiple sex partners, sexually active women under the age of 25, and men who have sex with men are at an increased risk of gonorrhea infections—which ultimately raises the risk of disseminated gonorrhea.

To prevent disseminated gonorrhea, it’s important to prevent gonorrhea in the first place. If you’re sexually active, use a condom each time you have sex and talk with your partner about both of your past sexually transmitted infections.

Routine testing for gonorrhea is one of the best ways to protect your sexual health. With the Everlywell at-home Chlamydia & Gonorrhea Test, you can easily check for gonorrhea and chlamydia from the privacy and convenience of your home.

If you have gonorrhea, you can usually make a full recovery if treatment is started as soon as possible. Treatment for gonorrhea often includes a series of antibiotics prescribed by your healthcare provider. Once you finish your course of antibiotics, ask your provider about getting tested for gonorrhea again to be sure the infection is completely gone.

If you get a positive result on the Everlywell at-home test, you’ll have the opportunity to connect with our independent physician network—and may be prescribed medication to treat the infection.


Gonorrhea: signs and symptoms

How do you get gonorrhea?

Gonorrhea and chlamydia: knowing the difference


References

1. Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance 2017: Gonorrhea. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed March 26, 2020.

2. Gonorrhea. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed March 26, 2020.

3. Health Alert Template for Disseminated Gonococcal Infection (DGI). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed March 26, 2020.

4. Gonococcal Arthritis. StatPearls Publishing. URL. Accessed March 26, 2020.

5. de Campos FP, Kawabata VS, Bittencourt MS, et al. Gonococcal endocarditis: an ever-present threat. Autops Case Rep. 2016;6(2):19–25. doi:10.4322/acr.2016.037

6. Brouqui P, Raoult D. Endocarditis due to rare and fastidious bacteria. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2001;14(1):177–207. doi:10.1128/CMR.14.1.177-207.2001

7. Meningococcal Meningitis. National Organization for Rare Disorders. URL. Accessed March 26, 2020.

8. Epididymitis. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed March 26, 2020.

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