Gonorrhea and syphilis cases are increasing: what you need to know


Gonorrhea levels in England are now at the highest level since records began in 1918 and new syphilis diagnoses at levels not seen since 1948.

Doctors are urging people concerned about having a sexually transmitted infection (STI) to get tested immediately, as levels of gonorrhea and syphilis soar across the UK.

Following the statistics, the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) has launched a LoveGUM campaign to encourage more young doctors to specialize in sexual health.

The UK's leading organization of sexual health and HIV professionals said genitourinary medicine (GUM) doctors are needed now more than ever.

Sexual health can sometimes be a difficult topic to broach, so we've spoken to some sexual health experts to help break down the STI taboo…

The NHS defines STIs as “diseases that are passed from one person to another through unprotected sexual intercourse (sex without a condom) or sometimes through genital contact.”

These infections can vary in severity, but anyone who presents with some of the common symptoms defined by the NHS (unusual discharge, lumps around the genitals, rashes or warts) should see a doctor.

How quickly symptoms appear depends on the type of STI you have, and some people have no symptoms.

The only way to know for sure is to get tested at a sexual health clinic, GUM clinic or GP surgery.

What is gonorrhea and how can it be treated?

The NHS defines gonorrhea as “a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a bacteria called Neisseria gonorrhoeae.

According to Nuffield Health, the bacteria lives in cells in the urethra, rectum, cervix, and sometimes the eyes and throat, and is transmitted through unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex and by sharing toys. sexual.

New figures from the UK Health Security Agency revealed that gonorrhea diagnoses increased by 7.5% in one year: from 79,268 diagnoses in 2022 to 85,223 diagnoses in 2023.

Gonorrhea cases in England have reached record levels, new figures show (Alamy/PA)
Gonorrhea cases in England have reached record levels, new figures show (Alamy/PA)

Dr Bhavini Shah, sexual health expert and GP at LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor, explains who is most at risk of gonorrhea and the symptoms to look out for.

“Any sexually active person can get gonorrhea. But you are at particular risk if you regularly change sexual partners or do not use adequate barrier contraception, such as condoms, when having sex.

“It can be prevented through barrier contraceptive methods. This means using condoms or dental dams (a square of latex or plastic used during oral sex). You should also wash and cover sex toys with a new condom when you share them.”

He also said symptoms usually appear two weeks after being infected and reinforced the importance of getting tested.

“In women, common symptoms include unusual vaginal discharge (light or watery and green or yellow); pain or burning when urinating; 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 urinating; swelling of the foreskin. Another symptom is pain or tenderness in the testicles, although this is rare.

“Approximately 10% of infected men and 50% of infected women do not experience any obvious symptoms, so regular STI testing is necessary, especially if you are at special risk,” Shah explained.

Shah added that it is important to treat gonorrhea quickly to prevent complications and long-term problems.

She said: “For example, although rare, gonorrhea can spread to the eyes if the eye comes into contact with infected discharge from the penis or vaginal fluid.

“Gonorrhea is especially worrying in pregnant women, as it can cause miscarriages, premature births or blindness in the newborn.”

The most common form of treatment is an injection of antibiotics, usually in the buttocks or thigh.

Sometimes it is also possible to take an antibiotic pill.

A follow-up appointment is also recommended one to two weeks after treatment, so that another test can be done to see if you are free of infection.

Patients are advised to avoid having sex until they have been given the all-clear, to avoid reinfection or passing the infection on to another person.

What is syphilis and how can it be treated?

New figures from the UK Health Security Agency also revealed that diagnoses of infectious syphilis increased by 9.4%, from 8,693 diagnoses in 2022 to 9,513 diagnoses in 2023.

According to the NHS, symptoms of syphilis include small sores on the body, usually around the genital areas, white or gray warty growths, skin rashes and swollen glands.

Symptoms may take three weeks to appear after infection.

It is diagnosed from a blood sample and treated with antibiotics.

According to Nuffield Health, if left untreated, it can become debilitating and lead to blindness, paralysis, stroke, dementia and heart disease.

But Dr David Phillips, sexual health consultant, HIV doctor and vice-president of BASHH, doesn't want people to worry and reassures sufferers that there are experts available to help.

Phillips said: “Syphilis is not as well known as other STIs, but it is on the rise.

“There are serious long-term complications, but the main message we want to convey to people is not to be afraid.

“There is a lot of incorrect and scary information online, so make sure you check out the NHS and BASHH resources because we are experts on it.

“We are here to help you and will help you get the right diagnosis and treatment.”

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