Emergent Management of Gonorrhea

Updated: Jan 13, 2023
  • Author: Bruce M Lo, MD, MBA, RDMS, FACEP, FAAEM, FACHE, FAAPL, CPE; Chief Editor: Steven C Dronen, MD, FAAEM  more...
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In emergency department (ED) patients whose clinical presentation suggests gonorrhea, specimens from likely sites of infection should be sent to the laboratory to be cultured for N gonorrhoeae and Chlamydia species. Nucleic acid amplification tests (NAATs) may be used in addition to or in place of culture depending on availability and laboratory preferences. [1] The possibility of other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) should be evaluated.

Begin appropriate antibiotic therapy for gonorrhea as soon as possible. Chlamydial infection is frequently found in patients with gonorrhea; thus, empiric antibiotic therapy should always provide coverage for both infections in any patients other than newborns. Gonococcal infection in HIV-positive patients is treated with the same regimen used for the general population.

Pain relief may be needed for patients with epididymitis, pelvic inflammatory disease, and disseminated gonococcal infection (DGI). Aspiration of purulent joint effusions may improve the patient’s comfort and recovery.

Partner diagnosis and treatment is important to prevent reinfection and complications. Counsel patients to abstain from sexual activity until after full treatment and testing and treatment of partners is complete. Patients should receive information and counseling to help them avoid future STDs and unwanted pregnancies.

Social services should be consulted immediately in cases of suspected sexual assault, child abuse, or elder abuse. Clinicians should be aware, however, that gonorrhea can be transmitted to children nonsexually (eg, spread of infection can occur via contaminated hands of infected caregivers). [2]

For more information, see the Medscape Reference topic Gonorrhea.



Consult a gynecologist for patients with severe pelvic inflammatory disease and for any pregnant patient with a sexually transmitted infection (STD). Consult a pediatrician for any child with an STD.

Consult an ophthalmologist for every patient with gonococcal conjunctivitis (see image below). This disease may progress rapidly and can cause permanent loss of vision.

Patient presented with gonococcal urethritis, whic Patient presented with gonococcal urethritis, which became systemically disseminated, leading to gonococcal conjunctivitis of the right eye. Courtesy of the CDC/Joe Miller, VD

Antibiotic Treatment

Because of resistance with oral cephalosporins, only one regimen, treatment with ceftriaxone IM, is recommended as first-line for treatment of gonorrhea in the United States. If concurrent C trachomatis has not been ruled out, the addition of doxycline is recommended. 

Because of the persistent increase in multidrug-resistant gonorrhea, the CDC 2021 recommendations' preferred dual-drug regimen consists of the following [3] :

  • Ceftriaxone 500 mg* IM 
  • Addition of Doxycycline 100mg BID for 7 days should be added if chlamydia has not been ruled out 

*Patients weighing ≥ 150 kg should receive 1 gram IM Ceftriaxone

The 500-mg IM dose of ceftriaxone is recommended over previous dosing, given concern for resistance, prior lower-dose ceftriaxone dose failures, and seemingly improved efficacy in pharyngeal infections. Ceftriaxone is safe and effective in pregnant women and probably destroys incubating syphilis. Its major drawback is the necessity for IM administration.

Since 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not recommended fluoroquinolone antibiotics for the treatment of gonorrhea in the United States because of bacterial resistance.

In August 2012, the CDC announced changes to 2010 sexually transmitted disease guidelines for gonorrhea treatment. The Gonococcal Isolate Surveillance Project (GISP) described a decline in cefixime susceptibility among urethral N gonorrhoeae isolates in the United States during 2006-2011. Because of cefixime’s lower susceptibility, new guidelines were issued that no longer recommend oral cephalosporins for first-line gonococcal infection treatment. [4]

Alternate treatment options

If ceftriaxone is unavailable, patients can be given a single dose of cefixime 800 mg PO. Addition of Doxycycline 100mg BID for 7 days should be added if chlamydia has not been ruled out. However, oral cefixime has limited efficacy against pharyngeal gonorrhea and concerns for increased resistence to cefixime should limit its usage.

If cephalosporin allergic, consider alternate dual therapy with gentamicin 240 mg IM plus azithromycin 2 g PO.

Another alternative regimen for patients intolerant of cephalosporins is spectinomycin (2 g IM). Spectinomycin may be costly, have limited efficacy against pharyngeal gonorrhea, and currently is unavailable in the United States.

If azithromycin allergic, doxycycline (100 mg PO BID for 7 days) can be used in place of azithromycin as an alternative second antimicrobial when used in combination with gentamicin.

Drug resistance

Although cephalosporins remain an effective treatment for gonococcal infections, the CDC has reported that resistance to cefixime increased from 0.2% in 2000 to 1.4% in 2010 and back down to 0.4% in 2013, and resistance to ceftriaxone increased from less than 0.1% to 0.4% in 2011 and back down to 0.05% in 2013. [3] However, the reported rates of resistance to ceftriaxone have been much higher in countries such as Japan, Spain, and France. [3] Oral cephalosporins no longer are recommended as first-line treatment for gonorrhea because of increasing resistance. Additionally, a high prevalence of tetracycline resistance among GISP isolates was observed, particularly among patients with elevated MICs to cefixime. [4]


Spectinomycin (Trobicin) is indicated for patients with beta-lactam intolerance. It is a second-line choice due to poor efficacy in pharyngitis. This drug is currently unavailable in the United States.


A review of the literature identified trials using single-dose gentamicin, an aminoglycoside, in the treatment of uncomplicated gonococcal infections in patients older than 16 years owing to the increase in antibiotic resistance. Although the primary outcome was the microbiological cure of N gonorrhoeae infection, further randomized trials are indicated. [5]

For more information see, CDC Sexually Transmitted Diseases Treatment Guidelines, 2021.


Hospital Admission

Hospitalization is recommended for initial treatment of disseminated gonococcal infection (especially for patients who are unlikely to return for follow-up doses of antibiotics), purulent joint infections, meningitis, and endocarditis. [3]

Hospitalization is recommended for initial treatment of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) cases in the presence of the following factors:

  • Tubo-ovarian abscess

  • Pregnancy

  • Failure of outpatient treatment

  • Severe symptoms, such as severe pain, high fever, or persistent nausea and vomiting

  • Immunodeficiency

  • Gonococcal conjunctivitis (see image below)

  • Uncertain diagnosis, with any possibility of ectopic pregnancy or appendicitis masquerading as PID

  • Abdominal peritonitis or perihepatitis

    Patient presented with gonococcal urethritis, whic Patient presented with gonococcal urethritis, which became systemically disseminated, leading to gonococcal conjunctivitis of the right eye. Courtesy of the CDC/Joe Miller, VD

Further Outpatient Care

Patients with disseminated gonococcal infection or pelvic inflammatory disease who are treated on an outpatient basis must receive follow-up care within 72 hours. Early follow-up care and culture with antibiotic sensitivities is indicated for patients with unresolved or recurrent symptoms.

Follow-up for test of cure is indicated for all patients with pharyngitis treated with spectinomycin, as its efficacy is less than 60%.

Recurrent symptoms may result from re-infection rather than treatment failure. However, if treatment failure is suspected, culture of isolates is recommended. [3]

Instruct patients with uncomplicated cases to follow up with a primary care or public health provider to reduce the risk of future infection.



All patients with gonococcal infection should refer all their sex partners (whether symptomatic or asymptomatic) for evaluation and treatment.

All infants born to mothers with untreated gonococcal infection should be treated prophylactically with a single dose of ceftriaxone 25-50 mg/kg IV or IM, not to exceed 125 mg. All neonates should undergo prophylaxis for ophthalmia neonatorum with silver nitrate (1%) aqueous solution OU once or erythromycin (0.5%) ophthalmic ointment OU once.

Condoms offer partial protection against gonococcal infection and should be recommended. [6]