Gonorrhea: What do we know?

Gonorrhea is common sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by infection with the pathogen Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Since 2014, there has been a 63% increase in gonorrhea diagnoses in the United States. Gonorrhea often does not cause symptoms in women, but when present, they are often mild such as burning when urinating, abnormal discharge, and bleeding between menstrual cycles. These symptoms may be mistaken as urinary tract infections, preventing patients from seeking treatment early on. Gonorrhea can also affect the genitals, rectum, and throat.  Several factors may contribute to an increased risk in particular individuals, for example, inconsistent condom use among those in relationships that are not mutually monogamous, having previous or current STDs, and exchanging sex for money and drugs.

Gonorrhea is associated with severe complications when left untreated, regardless of the severity of symptoms. Pregnant women can give the infection to their baby during childbirth, resulting in poor birth outcomes for the baby including blindness, joint infection, and a life-threatening blood infection. Untreated gonorrhea can also cause pelvic inflammatory disease in women, which can lead to formation of scar tissue on fallopian tubes, ectopic pregnancy, infertility, and chronic pelvic and abdominal pain.

The Challenge of Gonorrhea

Gonorrhea can be treated using antibiotics; however, the bacteria that causes gonorrhea has become increasingly resistant over time and no longer responds to the same drugs that used to eradicate it. Because of this, treatment for gonorrhea has become a challenge for healthcare providers. Follow-up repeat testing three months after treatment is important to ensure the bacterial infection is resolved. In addition, preventative measures, including consistent condom use and being in mutually monogamous relationships, can help decrease an individual’s risk of transmission.

The take-home message: sexually active women younger than 25 and older women at increased risk should be annually screened for all STDs, including gonorrhea. Individuals who receive gonorrhea diagnoses should adhere to treatment and follow-up in order to eliminate infection.