Gonorrhea and chlamydia: knowing the difference

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.


Both gonorrhea and chlamydia are sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that share a number of similarities. They’re both very common STIs (commonly transmitted by having unprotected sex with a sex partner). Their symptoms often resemble each other. And they can both have long-term health consequences if they aren’t treated. So what’s the difference between these two?

Keep reading for a closer look at the symptoms of chlamydia vs. gonorrhea, how they can affect your health, and how you can check for both STIs with a single chlamydia and gonorrhea test you can take at home.

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What is chlamydia and gonorrhea?

Both gonorrhea and chlamydia are common sexually transmitted infections occurring in men and women. So how do you get gonorrhea and chlamydia? They are transmitted through vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who’s infected.

Both infections are caused by bacteria—Chlamydia trachomatis in cases of chlamydia and Neisseria gonorrhoeae in cases of gonorrhea.

Although gonorrhea is a common sexually transmitted infection, chlamydia has a higher prevalence—with over 1.7 million cases of chlamydia reported in the United States in 2017.

Risk factors for getting gonorrhea and chlamydia are often identical and include:

  • Having multiple sex partners. You're more likely to be exposed to someone with a sexually transmitted infection if you have multiple sex partners.
  • Unprotected sex. Condom usage during sex substantially reduces the risk of getting a sexually transmitted infection, so your risk is higher if you have unprotected sex.
  • Having other STIs: If you already have a sexually transmitted infection, you can be at a greater risk of getting another STI. For example, if you contract chlamydia, you could be more likely to contract gonorrhea.

Chlamydia and gonorrhea symptoms

The symptoms of chlamydia and gonorrhea overlap, so it can be difficult to differentiate between the two unless you visit your healthcare provider or take a test for chlamydia or gonorrhea.

The overlapping symptoms for chlamydia and gonorrhea in men and women include:

  • A burning sensation during urination
  • Abnormal genital or rectal discharge
  • Pain in the rectum
  • Sore throat

With both chlamydia or gonococcal infections (another name for gonorrhea infections), men might also experience swelling and pain in the testicles and/or scrotum.

In women, both a gonorrhea and chlamydia infection might be mistaken for a yeast infection. Women may also experience painful periods, bleeding between periods, pain during sex, or abdominal pain.

Although the symptoms overlap, the discharge caused by chlamydia vs. gonorrhea can vary slightly. For a chlamydia infection, a woman’s vaginal discharge might have a strong odor and yellowish tint. Men might have a cloudy or clear discharge. With gonorrhea, both women and men may experience green, yellow, or white discharge.

If you're a woman experiencing abnormal vaginal discharge or a man with abnormal penile discharge, be sure to consult your healthcare provider as soon as possible as this is a common sign of an infection.

The health complications

If chlamydia and gonorrhea are not treated, serious health complications can develop. Untreated chlamydia and gonococcal infections in women can spread to the uterus and fallopian tubes. When untreated bacteria spread to these areas of the body, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) can result. Often, there might not be any initial symptoms of PID other than pelvic or abdominal pain.

Pelvic inflammatory disease can cause long-term harm to a woman’s reproductive system. Chronic pelvic pain can be caused by inflammation of the fallopian tubes and other areas of the reproductive system. Ultimately, infertility as well as ectopic pregnancy—which occurs when the fertilized egg cannot reach the uterus due to scarring caused by PID—can develop. In pregnant women, PID can also lead to premature birth. With both gonorrhea and chlamydia, infections can be transmitted to the newborn baby during birth as a result of infected vaginal tissue. This can lead to infant health complications like eye infections and pneumonia.

Gonorrhea and chlamydia can lead to health problems and complications in men, as well. It is rare for these infections to cause infertility, though epididymitis—inflammation of the tubes next to the testicles—can occur when this part of the body has a chlamydial infection or is infected by gonorrhea. This can cause testicular pain and swelling. A prostate gland infection known as prostatitis can also occur in men if chlamydia and gonorrhea symptoms go untreated. In this case, the bacteria spread to the prostate gland and can make urination and ejaculation painful. The infection can also cause fevers or pain in the lower back.

When it comes to men, one difference between chlamydia vs. gonorrhea health complications is that chlamydia can also spread to the urethra. When it does, it can cause non-gonococcal urethritis, an infection of the tube that carries the urine, which causes pain, fever, and inflammation.

For both women and men, a gonorrhea and chlamydia infection can develop into forms of arthritis. This is called reactive arthritis, which means arthritis caused by the body’s reaction to the infection. It can affect joints, the urethra, and the eyes.

If it isn’t treated, gonorrhea can also spread through the bloodstream and infect critical parts of the body, like the heart. This kind of gonorrhea infection is called a disseminated gonococcal infection. Disseminated gonorrhea can result in symptoms like joint pain, fever, skin rashes, and sores—as well as severe health complications involving the heart, brain, and/or spinal cord.

Because of the risk of long-term health complications associated with untreated gonorrhea and chlamydia, it's essential that you seek medical treatment right away if you've had sex with an infected sexual partner and have tested positive for one or more of these sexually transmitted infections. If you think you may have been infected by a sexual partner, talk with your healthcare provider as soon as possible—and consider checking for STDs with our at-home STD Test for men or women.

How gonorrhea and chlamydia are tested

Both gonorrhea and chlamydia can be diagnosed with similar methods. A healthcare provider might do a physical examination to look for symptoms, and they may do a urine test to check for the bacteria that cause chlamydia or gonorrhea.

But screening for chlamydia and gonorrhea doesn’t have to take place at a clinic. With the Everlywell at-home Chlamydia & Gonorrhea Test, you can easily check for these STIs from the comfort and privacy of your home.

The kit comes with easy-to-follow instructions and everything you need to collect your sample at home, and your physician-reviewed results can be conveniently and securely viewed online on your device. Plus, if you receive a positive result after you get tested for chlamydia and gonorrhea with 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?

What is disseminated gonorrhea?


References

1. Chlamydia - CDC Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed March 26, 2020.

2. Gonorrhea - CDC Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed March 26, 2020.

3. New CDC Report: STDs Continue to Rise in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed March 26, 2020.

4. Chlamydia - CDC Fact Sheet (Detailed). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed March 26, 2020.

5. Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) - CDC Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed March 26, 2020.

6. Berger RE, Alexander ER, Harnisch JP, et al. Etiology, manifestations and therapy of acute epididymitis: prospective study of 50 cases. J Urol. 1979;121(6):750–754. doi:10.1016/s0022-5347(17)56978-5

7. Sutcliffe S, Nevin RL, Pakpahan R, et al. Prostate involvement during sexually transmitted infections as measured by prostate-specific antigen concentration. Br J Cancer. 2011;105(5):602–605. doi:10.1038/bjc.2011.271

8. Urethritis. StatPearls. URL. Accessed March 26, 2020.

9. Denison HJ, Curtis EM, Clynes MA, et al. The incidence of sexually acquired reactive arthritis: a systematic literature review. Clin Rheumatol. 2016;35(11):2639–2648. doi:10.1007/s10067-016-3364-0

10. Holmes KK, Counts GW, Beaty HN. Disseminated gonococcal infection. Ann Intern Med. 1971;74(6):979–993. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-74-6-979

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