What is gonorrhea?
Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection caused by the organism Neisseria gonorrheae (also known as gonococcus bacteriae) that is transmitted by sexual contact. Gonorrhea is one of the oldest known sexually transmitted diseases. It is estimated that over one million women are currently infected with gonorrhea. Among women who are infected, a significant percentage also will be infected with chlamydia, another type of bacteria that causes another STD. (Chlamydia infection is discussed later in this article.)
Contrary to popular belief, gonorrhea cannot be transmitted from toilet seats or door handles. The bacterium that causes gonorrhea requires very specific conditions for growth and reproduction. It cannot live outside the body for longer than a few minutes, nor can it live on the skin of the hands, arms, or legs. It survives only on moist surfaces within the body and is found most commonly in the vagina, and, more commonly, the cervix. (The cervix is the end of the uterus that protrudes into the vagina.) It can also live in the tube (urethra) through which urine drains from the bladder. Gonorrhea can also exist in the back of the throat (from oral-genital contact) and in the rectum.
A majority of infected women have no symptoms, especially in the early stages of the infection. When women do experience signs and symptoms gonorrhea they include
- burning during urination,
- frequent urination,
- a yellowish vaginal discharge,
- redness and swelling of the genitals, and
- vaginal itching or burning.
If untreated, gonorrhea can lead to a severe pelvic infection with inflammation of the Fallopian tubes and ovaries. Gonorrhea can also spread through the body to infect joints to cause gonococcal arthritis. Gonorrheal infection of the Fallopian tubes can lead to a serious, painful infection of the pelvis known as pelvic inflammatory disease or PID. PID occurs in a significant portion of women with gonorrheal infection of the uterine cervix. Symptoms of pelvic infection include fever, pelvic cramping, abdominal pain, or pain with intercourse. Pelvic infection can lead to difficulty in becoming pregnant or even sterility. Occasionally, if the infection is severe enough, a localized area of infection and pus (an abscess) forms, and major surgery may be necessary and even lifesaving. Gonorrhea infection in people with conditions causing serious abnormal immune function, such as AIDS,, can also be more serious.
Testing and diagnosis of gonorrhea
Testing for gonorrhea is done by swabbing the infected site (rectum, throat, cervix) and identifying the bacteria in the laboratory either through culturing of the material from the swab (growing the bacteria) or identification of the genetic material from the bacteria. Sometimes the tests do not show bacteria because of sampling errors (the sampled area does not contain bacteria) or other technical difficulties, even when the woman has an infection. Newer tests to diagnose gonorrhea involve the use of DNA probes or amplification techniques (for example, polymerase chain reaction, or PCR) to identify the genetic material of the bacteria. These tests are more expensive than cultures but typically yield more rapid results.
Treatment of gonorrhea
In the past, the treatment of uncomplicated gonorrhea was fairly simple. A single injection of penicillin cured almost every infected person. Unfortunately, there are new strains of gonorrhea that have become resistant to various antibiotics, including penicillins, and are therefore more difficult to treat. Fortunately, gonorrhea can still be treated by other injectable or oral medications.
Uncomplicated gonococcal infections of the cervix, urethra, and rectum, are usually treated by a single injection of ceftriaxone or by oral cefixime (Suprax). For uncomplicated gonococcal infections of the pharynx, the recommended treatment is ceftriaxone in a single IM dose.
Alternative regimens for uncomplicated gonococcal infections of the cervix, urethra, and rectum include spectinomycin in nonpregnant women (not available in the United States) or single doses of other cephalosporins such as ceftizoxime or cefoxitin, administered with probenecid (Benemid), 1 g orally; or cefotaxime.
Treatment for gonorrhea should always include medication that will treat chlamydia [for example, azithromycin (Zithromax, Zmax) or doxycycline (Vibramycin, Oracea, Adoxa, Atridox and others)] as well as gonorrhea, because gonorrhea and chlamydia frequently exist together in the same person. The sexual partners of women who have had either gonorrhea or chlamydia must receive treatment for both infections since their partners may be infected as well. Treating the partners also prevents reinfection of the woman. Women suffering from PID or gonococcal arthritis require more aggressive treatment that is effective against the bacteria that cause gonorrhea as well as against other organisms. These women often require intravenous administration of antibiotics.
It is important to note that doxycycline, one of the recommended drugs for treatment of PID, is not recommended for use in pregnant women.
Gonorrhea is one of the easier STDs to prevent because the bacterium that causes the infection can survive only under certain conditions. The use of condoms protects against gonorrhea infection. Since the organism can live in the throat, condoms should be used during oral-genital contact as well.