Why is Gonorrhea Called the Clap?

By Alicia Wooldridge, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
March 7, 2022

Gonorrhea, an extremely contagious sexually transmitted disease (STD), is one of the most common STDs in the United States, impacting more than 600,000 people per year.

It can be transmitted via oral, vaginal, or anal sex, or from a mother to child during childbirth.

Sometimes, gonorrhea is called by a slang name, “the clap.”

In this article, I’ll tell you more about gonorrhea, including some theories about why it’s called “the clap.”

I’ll also tell you about its symptoms, how it’s diagnosed and treated, and who may be at risk for contracting gonorrhea. I’ll also tell you when to see a doctor.

What is Gonorrhea?

If you have unprotected sexual intercourse, including anal sex and oral sex, you may contract gonorrhea, an STD that affects the genitals, rectum, eyes, and throat.

It can also infect the cervix.

It is a highly contagious bacterial infection caused by the Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacterium, also known as gonococcus.

Anyone can get gonorrhea, though it is more prevalent in people with penises, and they tend to exhibit symptoms more frequently.

Gonorrhea is particularly common in people 15-24 years old.

Why is it Called the Clap?

We don’t know for certain where the name came from, but several interesting theories about this nickname exist.

A popular theory is that the term was coined from the French word, clapier, meaning brothel. In the 1500s, this word referred to a rabbit’s nest; due to the active sex lives of rabbits, the name was picked up as a slang term for brothels, a place where people engaged in regular sex and could spread the disease easily.

If you had the disease, you had “clapier bubo.” This was eventually shortened to “clap.”

Another theory suggests that the infection got its name in the days before antibiotics, when men would treat gonorrhea by slapping their penis against a board or clapping it between two hands to force out infected discharge.

There are also some etymologists who believe the term originated from an old English word, “clappan”, which means “beating or throbbing.”

In this theory, “the clap” could have originated from the symptoms caused by gonorrhea, like painful urination, and throbbing pain in the genitals.

Symptoms of Gonorrhea 

Symptoms of gonorrhea usually appear within 2-14 days after exposure.

However, not everyone will experience noticeable symptoms.

If you are asymptomatic, you can still spread the infection, infecting other partners without knowing. 

People with penises will experience different symptoms than to those with vaginas.

These symptoms include:

  • Frequent urination
  • A white, yellow, beige, or slightly green, pus-like discharge (or drip) from the penis 
  • Swelling or redness at the opening of the penis
  • Testicular pain or swelling
  • A persistent sore throat

Typically, people with vaginas do not experience symptoms of gonorrhea as strongly, which means the disease can be mistaken for a bladder or vaginal infection.

Some tell-tale signs you may have gonorrhea include:

  • Increased or yellowish discharge from the vagina 
  • Pain or burning sensation while urinating
  • More frequent urination
  • Pain during sexual intercourse
  • Heavier periods or bleeding between periods
  • Sore throat
  • A sharp pain in the lower abdomen
  • Fever

If you have gonorrhea in other areas of your body, you may experience different symptoms.

  • Rectum: Symptoms in your rectum include anal itching, painful bowel movements, a pus-like discharge from the rectum, and spots of blood after wiping on your toilet tissue.
  • Eyes: Eye pain, a pus-like discharge from one or both eyes, and sensitivity to light are all symptoms of a gonorrheal infection in your eye.
  • Throat: A sore throat and swollen lymph nodes are all indicators of gonorrhea in the throat.

How Gonorrhea is Diagnosed

If you think you might have gonorrhea, visit your local doctor or an STD clinic.

They can determine whether you have the disease by collecting a sample of your cells. Samples can be collected by:

  • Urine test: A urine test collected in a small plastic tub will identify if you have bacteria in your urethra.
  • Cotton swab: A swab of your throat, urethra, vagina, or rectum can collect bacteria that can be identified in a lab.

More often than not, when you visit your healthcare provider, they will test you for gonorrhea and other STDs at the same time.

This is because gonorrhea puts you at a greater risk of having other sexually transmitted infections, especially chlamydia

If you can’t visit a doctor or clinic, home test kits are available for women and people with vaginas.

The kits include vaginal swabs that you can send to a specified lab for testing.

When your results are ready, you can receive them by email or text message.

You can also view your results online or over the phone by calling a toll-free hotline.

Once you receive confirmation that you have gonorrhea, let your partner (or partners) know so they can get tested as well, regardless of whether they are showing signs or symptoms.

If you are treated for gonorrhea and your partner doesn’t get treated, you run the risk of contracting it from them again.

Gonorrhea Treatment 

If you suspect you have gonorrhea, it is important you abstain from sex to avoid passing the disease on to your partner or partners.

Tell them what signs and symptoms you are experiencing so they can arrange to also get tested. 

Treatment options for adults with gonorrhea are fairly straightforward.

Your doctor or healthcare provider will prescribe you a course of antibiotics.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends uncomplicated gonorrhea be treated with the antibiotic ceftriaxone, administered as an injection, with oral azithromycin (Zithromax).

This is because strains of drug-resistant Neisseria gonorrhoeae have emerged.

Tell your doctor about your medical history and if you have any known allergic reactions to cephalosporin antibiotics, such as ceftriaxone.

Your doctor may prescribe you oral gemifloxacin, or injectable gentamicin and oral azithromycin.

Babies who are born to mothers with gonorrhea may develop the infection.

They can be treated with antibiotics.

Who is at Risk for Gonorrhea?

If you are between the ages of 15 -24 years old and are sexually active, you are at a greater risk of contracting gonorrhea.

Other factors that put you at greater risk include: 

  • Having a new sex partner who has not had an STD test recently 
  • Engaging in unprotected sex with a partner who has other partners
  • Engaging in unprotected sex with more than one partner 
  • Having already had gonorrhea or another sexually transmitted infection 

When to See a Doctor 

Make an appointment with your doctor or visit an STD clinic if you notice any troubling signs or symptoms, particularly painful and frequent urination, or a pus-like discharge from your penis, vagina, or rectum. 

See a doctor as soon as possible if your partner has tested positive for gonorrhea, regardless of whether you are experiencing any symptoms.

Gonorrhea can be an asymptomatic disease. In the meantime, abstain from sex to avoid spreading the infection. 

How K Health Can Help

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Frequently Asked Questions

How common is gonorrhea?
It’s the second-most common STD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More than 600,000 cases were reported in 2019. The rate of gonorrhea has increased by 92% since 2009.
How does gonorrhea spread?
Gonorrhea spreads through unprotected sex with an infected person. It can also spread from infected mother to baby during childbirth.
What happens if gonorrhea goes untreated?
Untreated gonorrhea can cause serious and permanent health problems. The disease can spread into the uterus or fallopian tubes and cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in women. You may have gonorrhea with no symptoms, but can still spread it to others. That’s one reason it’s important to get treated regularly when you have sexual intercourse with new partners.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Alicia Wooldridge, MD

Dr. Alicia Wooldridge is a board certified Family Medicine physician with over a decade of experience.