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Can Gonorrhea be dormant or undetected for over 4 years?
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The STD Forum is intended only for questions and support pertaining to sexually transmitted diseases other than HIV/AIDS, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, human papillomavirus, genital warts, trichomonas, other vaginal infections, nongonoccal urethritis (NGU), cervicitis, molluscum contagiosum, chancroid, and pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). All questions will be answered by H. Hunter Handsfield, M.D. or Edward W Hook, MD.

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Can Gonorrhea be dormant or undetected for over 4 years?


I am very confused and concerned because I recently had my yearly pap smear, and my gynocologist told me I had Gonorrhea. My husband and I have been with no one else since we've met 4 years ago. He was a virgin, and I have a history of sexual partners, however, like I said, haven't been with anyone else in over 4 years. Neither of us have any of the symptoms, except that I do urinate a lot, but I've always been someone to go to the bathroom frequently, for as long as I can remember. I have complete trust in my husband and know that he would never cheat on me. Yet, Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted disease. The only other thing I can think of is that I caught it from someone at least four years ago? Can it really be dormant for that long? Even so, I've had a yearly pap smear every year, and each one by a different doctor. Could it really be missed that many times? Isn't it standard expectation for them to check for sexually transmitted diseases when performing a pap smear? I am just completely shocked and confused. If I was told this 7 years ago, it wouldn't be as shocking, since one of my sexual partners were questionable. Even so, after we split, I got tested for every sexual transmitted disease, even tested for HIV, and I tested that I didn't have anything.  

I requested another pap smear to be completed, because I just feel like it has to be a mistake. The doctor told me that she'll do another pap but its highly unlikely that it will gear different results. All I know with complete assurance is that neither myself nor my husband has been with anyone else, in over four years.  There has to be some kind of explanation. Can Gonorrhea be mistaken for something else?

Thank you for any clarification you can bring me...
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Welcome to the forum.  Responding first to the title you chose before I read the question itself:  Gonorrhea certainly can persist for several months, but probably rarely longer than a year.  Four years is extremely unlikely.

Now having read the question:  Not only is it probably impossible for gonorrhea to last 4 years.  If you really had gonorrhea tests over the years, it really isn't possible that they missed it.  However, standard pap smears don't pick up gonorrhea; a specific test has to be requested by the provider.  Most likely gonorrhea testing was not done during most of those exams.  But that's not the important point; it remains extremely unlikely you have had gonorrhea for 4 years or more.

So one of two things is going on:  either you indeed have recently acquired gonorrhea, or the test result is wrong.

As to the first possibility, your trust in your husband's fidelity is a very important consideration.  You're in a better position than I am to judge whether that judgment is accurate.  However, I have to wonder why your doctor decided to do a gonorrhea test for this pap smear?  As I said, it isn't usual except in younger (under age 25 or so and/or unmarried women.  Did he see something one examination that made him suspicious?  Did you say anything about your or your husband's sexual behavior?  Is there any chance your husband said something to your doctor without telling you?

If you are correct about your husband's fidelity, then a false positive test is the only possibility.  You can't catch gonorrhea by nonsexual means.  The likelihood of a lab error depends in part on the kind of test that was done.  Some of the older tests, now in less common use -- for example, a "DNA probe" test -- give false positive results fairly frequenly.  The newer, better tests -- called nucleic acid amplification tests (NAATs) -- rarely are false positive.  But even with such a test, it is a small possibility.

You are on the right track to be retested; I'm glad your doctor has agreed to that.  When it is done, I suggest you talke with him about exactly what test was done.  (It's possible he doesn't know and might need to check with the lab.)  Regardless of the test done before, insist on one of the NAAT tests (there are several brands) this time.  Also, talk to your doctor about doing a culture test in addition to NAAT.  Culture isn't done as often as it once was, but can be useful in sorting out uncertain situations.

In the meantime, it also would be a good idea for your husband to be tested.  Of course if his result is positive, that will begin to solve the mystery.  Also, once your repeat test has been collected and a urine specimen has been collected from your husband, it would be a good idea for both of you to be treated.  It only takes a single dose of antibiotic, so it's easy -- and better safe than sorry if there is any possibility the result is accruate. Of course you and your husband definitely need treatment if either your husband's or your repeat test is positive.  

Consider printing this reply and discuss it with your doctor.  In any case, please come back to the forum and let me know exactly what test was done first time and the results of additional testing and your husband's test result.

Bottom line:  I'm betting on a false positive test, i.e. that you don't have gonorrhea, and that both your repeat test and your husban'ds test will be negative.

I hope this helps.  Best wishes--  HHH, MD
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I should have thought to ask:  What is your race/ethnicity?  Are you in the US?  Of course it is behavior, not race, that puts people at risk for STDs.  However, gonorrhea is so much more common in African Americans (20-30 times higher rates than in whites or persons of Asian ancestry) that it would influence the probabilities.
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