STD Awareness: Is Mouthwash a Match for Gonorrhea’s Superpowers?

Since the 1930s, we’ve enjoyed around eight decades of easily cured gonorrhea — at least in places with easy access to antibiotics — but experts fear those days are numbered. In the past year or so, cases of untreatable gonorrhea have occasionally made headlines.

Thanks to the powers of evolution, some bacteria have acquired the multiple genes necessary to withstand the onslaught of the pills and shots administered by doctors. Gonococci, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea, are starting to win this “arms race” with humans, whose antibiotic arsenals are losing effectiveness. And with gonorrhea on the rise, gonococci may be evolving at an ever-quickening clip.


In 1879, Listerine claimed to cure gonorrhea. Today, scientists are finally testing that claim. We await the results.


Oral Gonorrhea: The Silent Scourge

Many experts believe oral gonorrhea is a key driver of antibiotic resistance. These infections usually don’t cause symptoms, and without symptoms people usually don’t seek treatment. Without treatment, gonococci can hang out in a throat for up to three months.

After transmission by oral sex — and possibly even by kissing  — gonococci can set up camp in the throat, which is an ideal environment for acquiring antibiotic resistance. They might not be causing symptoms, but they’re not sitting there twiddling their thumbs, either. If there’s one thing gonococci love to do, it’s collecting genes like some of us collect trading cards, and the throat is a gathering place for closely related bacteria species that hand out antibiotic-resistance genes for their expanding collections.

Gonococci can easily scavenge DNA from their surroundings — say, from a dead bacterium — and patch long segments of these genes into their own DNA, creating genetic hybrids between themselves and other organisms. Last month, scientists from Indiana University caught this phenomenon on video for the first time.

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

Can Cranberry Juice Cure Urinary Tract Infections?

Cranberry products have a reputation for fighting urinary tract infections. But is this reputation deserved? Image: FreeDigitalPhotos

An increased urge to urinate. A burning sensation when you do. These are two of the signs of a urinary tract infection (UTI), an incredibly unpleasant condition that can seem to come out of nowhere. Anyone can get a UTI, but among adults they are about 50 times more common in females than in males. Certain microorganisms cause these infections, often when bacteria from feces are introduced into the urinary tract. Although symptoms often clear up without medical intervention, it is very important to seek treatment for a persistent UTI because the infection could spread and become much more serious. (If you are or have been sexually active, it is also important to make sure you don’t actually have a sexually transmitted infection.)

Cranberry products — either as juice (sweetened, unsweetened, or blended with other fruit juices) or capsules — are considered by many to be an effective home remedy for UTIs. While cranberries are a well-known and accessible treatment, the evidence for their efficacy is not very strong. Why, then, are they such a popular treatment? It could be due simply to the placebo effect, an amazing phenomenon in which our expectations help shape our experiences. It could be that symptoms often clear up on their own, but we attribute our improvement to whatever remedies we happened to be trying at the time. It could be that drinking extra fluids (e.g., cranberry juice) helps flush the bacteria from our bodies as we urinate more. Or, it’s possible that cranberries do help clear up UTIs, but we just don’t have solid evidence yet. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Gonorrhea

Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which causes gonorrhea, is pictured here in a photograph taken with a scanning electron microscope. Projecting from the organism’s surface are many pili, powerful appendages that enable the bacteria to adhere to human cells. Image: National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.

April is STD Awareness Month, but this blog has sought to increase your awareness of sexually transmitted diseases on a monthly basis. So far in 2011 we’ve pointed the spotlight at human papillomavirus, barrier methods, and herpes. This month’s installment will focus on gonorrhea, colloquially known as “the clap,” a common sexually transmitted disease caused by sneaky bacteria called Neisseria gonorrhoeae. It is spread by vaginal, anal, and oral sex, and can infect certain cells in the throat, mouth, rectum, urethra, or cervix. It can also be transmitted manually to infect the eye. If you are sexually active, you can reduce risk of transmission by consistently and correctly using latex barriers such as condoms and dental dams.

Four out of five females infected with gonorrhea do not experience symptoms – males, however, usually do, but they can be mild and therefore easy to overlook. Symptoms can appear within a month, and might include painful or frequent urination, vaginal or penile discharge, painful bowel movements, itching, or sore throat. Additionally, females can experience abdominal pain, fever, irregular menstruation, or bleeding between periods. In pregnant women, untreated gonorrhea infections can lead to complications such as premature labor or stillbirth. The infection can also be passed from mother to infant during delivery.  Continue reading