Why You May Have Gonorrhea Without Knowing It

Why You May Have Gonorrhea Without Knowing It

by Sue Jones
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Sex can be amazing, but it can leave you with more than a body-quaking orgasm. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like “the clap” are always a risk (even if you use protection, which you definitely should). But wait, what is “the clap,” exactly? It’s slang for gonorrhea (and no, it doesn’t come with a round of applause—zing!). Gonorrhea can cause uncomfortable symptoms or it can be asymptomatic, meaning you have no symptoms at all. That means you could have the infection and unknowingly spread it to others.

If you were diagnosed with gonorrhea or think there’s a chance you have it, know that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. “It doesn’t mean you are dirty or weren’t careful,” Sarah Yamaguchi, MD, FACOG, a board-certified gynecologist at DTLA Gynecology who is affiliated with Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose, California, tells SELF. “If you are having sex, then I think you have to be realistic that you might get a sexually transmitted infection.”

Staying informed—whether through understanding the protective methods available or recognizing the signs of gonorrhea—will help you mount the best plan to take care of your health. Keep reading to learn more about what “the clap” is, including why it’s called that and how you can prevent it.

What is gonorrhea?

Gonorrhea is a contagious bacterial infection that is usually contracted through the penis, vagina, mouth, or anus, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The bacterium that causes gonorrhea (called Neisseria gonorrhoeae) thrives in warm, moist environments, so it typically infects mucous membranes in the urethra and parts of the reproductive tract, according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM). “In women, gonorrhea can spread beyond the cervix and infect the uterus and fallopian tubes, leading to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID),” Renita F. White, MD, FACOG, a board-certified ob-gyn at Georgia Obstetrics & Gynecology who is affiliated with Northside Hospital in Atlanta, tells SELF. “This can potentially lead to infertility, ectopic pregnancy, and chronic pelvic pain if left untreated.”

People usually get gonorrhea from sexual contact with another person or sex toys, but pregnant individuals who have an active infection can pass the bacteria on to their baby during childbirth.

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How common is gonorrhea?

It’s the second most commonly reported bacterial STI, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There are roughly 1.14 million new gonorrhea infections reported in the U.S. every year, according to the CDC. About half of all infections affect people between 15 to 24 years old.

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Why do they call it “the clap”?

Good question. Gonorrhea is one of the oldest STIs known to humans, so it’s hard to identify the first person who called it “the clap.” However, there are a few unproven theories about the term’s origin stories, Anna Powell, MD, MS, an assistant professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, tells SELF. One popular theory identifies “the clap” as a derivative of les clapiers, a French translation of rabbit huts, or a reference to the small homes where prostitutes lived during the 1500s1. “The clap” may also reference a medieval method that involved clapping a heavy object on a person’s penis to remove discharge caused by the infection. And finally, the phrase may have been used hundreds of years ago to describe the clapping sensation some people experienced when peeing2.

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What are the most common gonorrhea symptoms?

Identifying the STI on your own is tricky because gonorrhea symptoms can be subtle, or they can mimic other infections—if they’re present at all. In fact, 50% of people with vaginas experience gonorrhea symptoms3. In comparison, roughly 10 to 15% of people with penises are asymptomatic4. Dr. Yamaguchi says gonorrhea symptoms can occur anywhere from a few days to a month after your initial infection, but they typically show up within a week.

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