STD Awareness: Why Should You Care About Oral Gonorrhea?

Image: CDC

An illustration of Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea. Image: CDC

When I say “gonorrhea,” you might think of genitals that feel as though they have been set ablaze, or perhaps a viscous fluid oozing from the urethra. But gonococci, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea, can also set up camp in the pharynx after being transmitted into a mouth and down a throat when its new host gave oral sex to its old host. Indeed, performing oral sex on multiple partners has been found to increase risk for an oral gonorrhea infection (more properly called pharyngeal gonorrhea).

If you read our September 2012 article on gonorrhea of the throat, you might remember these fun facts: Oral gonorrhea goes away within three months, even without treatment! Plus, these infections rarely have symptoms. Why, then, should you care about a gonorrhea infection in your throat? You’re not likely to notice it’s there, and it’ll go away on its own anyway.


Many researchers believe that the throat is an incubator for antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea.


Well, aside from the possibility of transmitting a gonorrhea infection from your throat to someone’s genitals, there’s one other thing to care about: the development of antibiotic resistance.

The emergence of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is considered one of the most pressing problems in infectious disease — just two years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named it an “urgent threat,” and indeed, gonorrhea seems to be evolving resistance to drugs at quite a rapid clip. If gonorrhea evolves complete resistance to the drugs we use to cure it, we could find ourselves sent back in time, to the days when gonorrhea was untreatable — and responsible for infertility, blindness, and chronic pain. While scientists figure out how to address this emerging threat, you can do your part by avoiding gonorrhea in the first place — and that includes using condoms and dental dams to prevent oral gonorrhea infections.

So, while it sounds like a blessing that gonorrhea of the throat rarely has symptoms, there’s actually a drawback: An oral gonorrhea infection probably won’t be effectively treated — or even identified in the first place. And these hidden throat infections are likely to be helping to drive the development of antibiotic resistance. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Genetics and the Gonococcus

Image: CDC

Ever since the discovery of effective antibacterial therapies less than a century ago, humans have been able to easily cure gonorrhea, the sexually transmitted scourge that laid waste to fallopian tubes and robbed newborns of vision. Most of us in the developed world have forgotten that this disease was once a leading cause of infertility in women and blindness in babies — and still is in much of the developing world.

Unfortunately, gonococci — the species of bacteria that cause gonorrhea — have been evolving resistance to every antibiotic we’ve thrown at them, including sulfonamides, penicillins, tetracyclines, macrolides, fluoroquinolones, and narrow-spectrum cephalosporins. We have one remaining first-line gonorrhea treatment left: extended-spectrum cephalosporins, which include cefixime, which is taken orally, and ceftriaxone, which is administered as a shot — and resistance is emerging to those drugs, as well.


Gonococci don’t swap potato salad recipes at family reunions — they swap genetic material!


The emergence of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is considered one of the most pressing problems in infectious disease — just two years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named it an “urgent threat,” and indeed, gonorrhea seems to be evolving resistance to drugs at quite a rapid clip. Gonococci can acquire resistance to antibiotics in three ways.

First, a genetic mutation can endow bacteria with special antibiotic-fighting powers, making it harder for a drug like penicillin to attach to their cells and destroy them. Such a mutant is more likely to gain evolutionary traction if it finds itself in an antibiotic-drenched environment in which resistance to that drug allows it to “outcompete” other bacteria. Indeed, antibiotic resistance was first documented in the 1940s, just years after sulfonamides and penicillin were introduced as the first effective cures for gonorrhea. Continue reading

STD Awareness: The Latest on Gonorrhea

Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the bacterium that gangs up on your body to give it gonorrhea. Image: CDC

Gonorrhea is that guy with the funny name who’s always up to something new and mischievous. Last year, the New England Journal of Medicine declared that it’s “time to sound the alarm” in response to emerging strains of gonorrhea that are increasingly resistant to antibiotics. Then, earlier this year, the medical journal JAMA reported the first North American sightings of gonorrhea that failed treatment with cefixime, one of the last drugs we have in our anti-gonorrhea arsenal. It’s a great time to be a gonococcus — the type of bacteria that causes gonorrhea — but the humans they infect probably don’t see it that way.

Last month, this bad boy rose to the top of the Most Wanted list when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention proclaimed antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea an “urgent threat” — the highest threat level, which gonococci share with only two other bacteria types. To give you some context, the much more famous superbug MRSA was categorized as a “serious” threat, one notch below “urgent.”


Antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is an “urgent” threat; meanwhile, researchers develop a gonorrhea vaccine that works — on mice.


Antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is especially insidious for two reasons. One, gonorrhea often doesn’t have symptoms, which allows it to jump from one sexual partner to another, the hosts often none the wiser. Two, unless health care providers actually test the bug’s DNA, they have no way of knowing whether or not they’re dealing with a drug-resistant strain. This opens up the possibility for treatment failure — and for the antibiotic-resistant bacteria to be further propagated into the community.

The CDC estimates that the United States sees 246,000 cases of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea infections annually — that’s about 30 percent of all gonorrhea infections in the country. For now, we seem to be able to cure them with higher doses or different combinations of drugs. So why does antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea deserve the “urgent” designation? While gonorrhea isn’t associated with a body count — unlike other drug-resistant pathogens, which collectively kill at least 23,000 Americans a year — it can have terrible consequences. Gonorrhea can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) when it advances up the female reproductive tract, and epididymitis when it invades the male reproductive tract; both conditions can cause infertility. Also, gonorrhea infections make us more vulnerable to HIV. The CDC estimates that if the most resistant gonorrhea strain gains ground over the next decade, the country could see an additional 75,000 cases of PID, 15,000 cases of epididymitis, and 222 HIV infections, costing us $235 million. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Will Gonorrhea Be Worse Than AIDS?

A scanning electron micrograph of a colony of Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea. Image: Portland State University

If you’ve been reading the news lately, you might have noticed an odd piece of reportage from CNBC, in which a naturopath claimed that antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea “might be a lot worse than AIDS” and might cause cases of sepsis that could kill “in a matter of days.” This quotation, uttered by a single naturopath, was then exaggerated in sources such as the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail, which ran the headline “Doctors warn that antibiotic-resistant strain of gonorrhea could be ‘worse than AIDS.'” In fact, the only person making this claim was one naturopath, not a doctor, and certainly not plural “doctors.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. First is the alarmism in the original CNBC article, and its dependence on an unreliable source. Second is the issue of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea itself, which is a very serious public health problem. Thirdly, let’s look at the naturopath’s claim, which is that antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea could unleash a plague worse than AIDS and kill its victims in a matter of days.


Claims that antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea will be “worse than AIDS” are greatly exaggerated.


Alan Christianson, the naturopath behind the hyperbolic claims of super-virulent gonorrhea, does not seem to be an actual expert in infectious disease (his website lists “natural endocrinology” and “male menopause” among his specialties), nor is he a medical doctor. The article identifies him as a “doctor of naturopathic medicine,” but what does that mean?

Naturopaths are not medical doctors, and degrees in naturopathic medicine aren’t awarded by institutions accredited by the Association of Medical Colleges, the body that accredits medical schools. Naturopathy is a philosophy that is not generally supported by scientific evidence, but rather is based in “a belief in the healing power of nature,” according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. It was developed in the 1800s and today encompasses many modalities of alternative medicine, including homeopathy and herbalism. For these reasons, it is odd that a journalist quoted a naturopath on the potential of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea rather than someone more qualified, such as a microbiologist or epidemiologist. Continue reading

STD Awareness: An Update on Antibiotic-Resistant Gonorrhea

Last year, we shared the fascinating and frightening story of the emergence of increasingly antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, an STD caused by the gonococci bacteria. The sexually transmitted scourge, which we only so recently reined in with the development of antibiotics, has been performing some genetic gymnastics to defeat almost every drug we’ve thrown at it. We douse it with certain drugs, and the bacterium literally spits them back out at us, and it inactivates other drugs by snapping the active molecules in half. Sulfa drugs, penicillins, tetracyclines, fluoroquinolones — they all make a gonococcus heave a bored sigh. Luckily, cephalosporins were still an effective treatment, but recently there have been reports of stubborn gonorrhea infections caused by the latest and greatest (and some might say most hated) strain of gonococci.


The bacteria that cause gonorrhea continue to evolve, right under our noses!


Well, the story isn’t over — just like the bacteria that cause gonorrhea, the tale is rapidly evolving. The latest class of antibiotics that the gonococci are chipping away at is the cephalosporin family, which includes several chemically related drugs that work in similar ways — and that can likewise be defeated by microbes in similar ways. Cephalosporin-resistant gonorrhea was first reported in Japan and documented in a few European countries. The Japanese case that inspired the New England Journal of Medicine to declare last year that it was “time to sound the alarm” was an oral gonorrhea infection that was resistant to one member of the cephalosporin family: ceftriaxone.

Earlier this month, the prestigious medical journal JAMA reported the first North American sightings of gonorrhea that failed treatment with another cephalosporin: cefixime. Yeah, I know, you’d rather hear about Big Foot or UFO sightings, not evidence that something as real and unmythical as Gonorrhea 5.0 has landed in your back yard. Luckily, there’s plenty you can do to protect yourself from it, and we’ll tell you all about it toward the end of this article. (Spoiler alert: It involves using condoms!) Continue reading

STD Awareness: Gonorrhea of the Throat

Editor’s note: For more information on oral gonorrhea, please see our post Why Should You Care About Oral Gonorrhea? For more information on whether a gonorrhea infection can go away without treatment, please see our post Will STDs Go Away on Their Own?

Gonococci can band together to attach themselves to a human cell. Image: Dustin Higashi, University of Arizona

My fellow Generation Xers might remember an episode of Chicago Hope in which a very young Jessica Alba portrays a teenage girl with a gonorrhea infection in her throat — also called pharyngeal gonorrhea. The actress later reported being shunned by members of her church, disillusioning her from the religion she grew up with. It is a testament to the power of taboo that even a fictional association with a sexually transmitted disease (STD) can elicit such negative reactions.

Taboos can affect the ways we relate to one another sexually, as well. Many of us conceptualize of disease as “dirty,” and the flip side to that is to think of people without disease as “clean.” This kind of stigmatizing language can be found in phrases like “She looked clean” and “Don’t worry, I’m clean” — all to describe people who are perceived to be or who claim to be free of STDs. With all the baggage we put on STD status, it can be difficult to ask a partner to use a condom or dental dam during oral sex. Some people might think we don’t trust them or are underhandedly questioning their “cleanliness.” These sorts of fears can cloud our judgment when it comes to protecting our health, but there is nothing wrong with asking your partner to use protection during oral sex — especially if you don’t know one another’s STD status. There are many good reasons to use barrier methods when engaging in oral sex, and pharyngeal gonorrhea is just one of them.


Unprotected oral contact with a penis puts you at the most risk of acquiring pharyngeal gonorrhea.


Gonorrhea is most famous as an infection of the cervix or the urethra. But gonococci, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea, can thrive in other warm, moist areas of your body — not just the reproductive tract, but also the mouth, throat, eyes, and anus. Gonococci can be transmitted to your mouth or throat via oral sex — most likely via unprotected oral sex. Symptoms might include a sore throat, but 90 percent of the time there are no symptoms at all. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Antibiotic-Resistant Gonorrhea

Under the microscope, Neisseria gonorrhoeae infects larger human cells (click to enlarge). The bacteria resemble tiny pairs of coffee beans. Image: Dr. Norman Jacobs, CDC

Writing about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), one must walk the line between warning readers of risks and engaging in full-fledged alarmism. So it’s a bit disconcerting that researchers writing in the New England Journal of Medicine last month declared that it’s “time to sound the alarm”: The emergence of completely antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is becoming more of a realistic threat and less of a theoretical possibility. The bacteria that cause gonorrhea are evolving faster than we can develop effective antibiotics against them, and a return to the era of untreatable gonorrhea could see a rise in the particularly nasty complications that arise from a long-term gonorrheal infection, such as pelvic inflammatory disease and epididymitis.


There are genes that confer resistance to every single antibiotic we use to cure gonorrhea. If they all combine within one organism, we might have a superbug on our hands.


Neisseria gonorrhoeae is a species of tricky bacteria that cause gonorrhea, which can infect the mouth, throat, rectum, urethra, cervix, and even eyes. These bacteria have vexed us for thousands of years, having evolved many strategies for entrenching themselves in our bodies. They can alter the proteins that adorn their surfaces, rendering our immune systems incapable of recognizing them. They can form colonies in which they work together to manipulate our cell surfaces with their retracting appendages until they’re allowed entry inside, where they can surreptitiously multiply.

You’ve probably heard of MRSA, which is pronounced “mersa” and stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — a strain of bacteria that has acquired resistance to methicillin, as well as pretty much every other antibiotic to boot. MRSA is an example of evolution by natural selection — what didn’t kill its ancestors made them stronger, spawning a drug-resistant strain.

Why are we talking about MRSA in a post about STDs? It’s not just because MRSA has apparently found a way to be transmitted sexually, but also because it helps make the concept of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea more accessible. It wasn’t until less than a century ago that we finally developed a magic-bullet treatment for gonorrhea, and for a handful of decades it was quickly and easily treated with a dose of penicillin. Enter evolution by natural selection. Continue reading