April is Sexually Transmitted Disease Awareness Month (#STDMONTH17). This year the focus is on syphilis. Since we wrote a blog about syphilis not too long ago and covered herpes and chlamydia in the past few weeks, this blog will be about a different sexually transmitted disease: Gonorrhea.
Neisseria gonorrhoeae is the bacteria that causes this sexually transmitted infection. It’s actually a lot like Chlamydia trachomatis (which you are all experts on after memorizing last week’s blog). It can be spread through oral, anal, or vaginal sex and cause infections in the throat, rectum, penis, and vagina.
In females, it can cause vaginal discharge, irregular vaginal bleeding, pain with urination, and can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility. In males, it can cause penile discharge, pain with urination, and testicular pain. In both sexes, it can cause symptoms throughout the body, like swollen joints, sore throat, and rectal pain. Like many infections, it’s possible to have gonorrhea and have no symptoms, meaning you can also spread the infection without knowing you have it. Health care providers can do routine screening (as simple as a vaginal swab or peeing in a cup) to check for infection even when you don’t have symptoms. Gonorrhea is curable once detected (at least, for now).
One of the most interesting things about Neisseria gonorrhoeae is its ability to “mutate” to develop antibiotic resistance (here’s a super-interesting article about its journey through resistance). Gonorrhea infections were once treated with penicillin, but over the years, the smart bug developed resistance to that. Then we treated with other antibiotics (tetracycline, then ciprofloxacin), but the bacteria eventually lost susceptibility to those as well. Now, we’re onto a different class of antibiotics (cephalosporins) and this tricky little devil is starting to develop resistance to these. We now have to do both an injection and a pill at the same time to treat (noncomplicated) gonorrhea infections. This is actually a really big deal – we are running out of options if this bacteria becomes impervious to these antibiotics. We could be left with an untreatable superbug that wreaks havoc on humans. Seriously.
Preventing gonorrhea infections is way easier than treating the superbug – using condoms and other barrier methods during all types of sexual activity (oral, anal, and vaginal) is really important. Make sure you and your partner(s) are tested. Follow your health care provider’s instructions about avoiding sex until at least 1 week after you and your partner(s) are treated. Doing this could help save the world (at least, from this infection).