The usual site of infection in women is the cervix. From there it can spread to the uterus and fallopian tubes and cause pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy, or infertility. Other complications, in both sexes, include infection of the joints, heart valves, and brain. Women are often asymptomatic, but may have a vaginal discharge or burning sensation on urination; men may have a discharge from the penis and pain on urination. Examination of the discharge reveals the presence of the bacteria. In most cases, the disease can be cured by adequate treatment with a fluoroquinolone or cephalosporin antibiotic such as ciprofloxacin or ceftriaxone. Failure of treatment is usually due to resistant strains (see drug resistance). Prior infection does not confer resistance and reinfection is common.
Sexually transmitted disease. It is characterized by genitourinary inflammation, caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae (gonococcus). Symptoms in men include burning on urination, discharge of pus, and, with deeper infection, frequent urination, sometimes with blood. Women may have mild vaginal discharge and burning, but there is usually no sign until a sex partner is infected or complications—sometimes serious—arise from its spread beyond the cervix. If spontaneous recovery does not occur, it may cause sterility in both sexes but is rarely fatal. Gonorrhea is common worldwide. Penicillin, generally a successful treatment, reduced its incidence, but resistant strains are increasingly found. Many cases are not reported. Penicillin may also mask coexisting syphilis (since the dose to cure gonorrhea does not cure syphilis).
Learn more about gonorrhea with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Non-genital sites in which it thrives are in the rectum, the throat (oropharynx), and the eyes (conjunctiva). The vulva and vagina in women are usually spared because they are lined by stratified epithelial cells—in women the cervix is the usual first site of infection. Gonorrhea typically spreads during sexual intercourse. It can also be vertically transmitted, where infected mothers can pass gonorrhea to their newborn infants during delivery. This causes conjunctivitis (eye infections) which, if left untreated, can lead to blindness. As prophylaxis against this, many countries routinely treat infants with eyedrops of erythromycin at birth.
Men have a 20% chance of getting the infection by having sexual relations with a woman infected with gonorrhea. Women have a 50% chance of getting the infection by having sexual relations with a man infected with gonorrhea. An infected mother may transmit gonorrhea to her newborn during childbirth, a condition known as ophthalmia neonatorum.
Less advanced symptoms, which may indicate development of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), include cramps and pain, bleeding between menstrual periods, vomiting, or fever. It is not unusual for men to have asymptomatic gonorrhea. Men may complain of pain on urinating and thick, copious, urethral pus discharge (also known as gleet) is the most common presentation. Examination may show a reddened external urethral meatus. Ascending infection may involve the epididymis, testicles or prostate gland causing symptoms such as scrotal pain or swelling. Instances of blurred vision in one eye may occur in adults.
In women, the most common result of untreated gonorrhea is pelvic inflammatory disease, a serious infection of the uterus that can lead to infertility. Further on, perihepatitis may develop. This rare complication is associated with Fitz-Hugh-Curtis syndrome. Additionally, septic arthritis in the fingers, wrists, toes, and ankles is also common. This should be evaluated promptly with a culture of the synovial fluid, blood, cervix, urethra, rectum, skin lesion fluid, or pharynx. The underlying gonorrhea should be treated; if this is done then usually a good prognosis will follow.
These drugs are all given as a single dose.
The level of tetracycline resistance in Neisseria gonorrhœae is now so high as to make it completely ineffective in most parts of the world.
The fluoroquinolones (ciprofloxacin, ofloxacin, levofloxacin) cannot be used in pregnancy. It is important to refer all sexual partners to be checked for gonorrhea to prevent spread of the disease and to prevent the patient from becoming re-infected with gonorrhea. Patients should also be offered screening for other sexually transmitted infections. In areas where co-infection with chlamydia is common, doctors may prescribe a combination of antibiotics, such as ceftriaxone with doxycycline or azithromycin, to treat both diseases.
Penicillin is ineffective at treating rectal gonorrhea: this is because other bacteria within the rectum produce β-lactamases that destroy penicillin. All current treatments are less effective at treating gonorrhea of the throat, so the patient must be rechecked by throat swab 72 hours or more after being given treatment, and then retreated if the throat swab is still positive.
Although gonorrhea usually does not require follow-up (with the exception of rectal or pharyngeal disease), patients are usually advised to phone for results five to seven days after diagnosis to confirm that the antibiotic they received was likely to be effective. Patients are advised to abstain from sex during this time.
Drug resistant strains are known to exist.
The United States does not have a federal system of sexual health clinics, and the majority of infections are treated in family practices. A third-generation cephalosporin antibiotic such as ceftriaxone is recommended for use in most areas. Since some areas such as Hawaii and California have very high levels of resistance to fluoroquinolone antibiotics (ciprofloxacin, ofloxacin, levofloxacin) they are no longer used empirically to treat infections originating in these areas.
Since 1993, fluoroquinolones (i.e., ciprofloxacin, ofloxacin, or levofloxacin) have been used frequently in the treatment of gonorrhea because of their high efficacy, ready availability, and convenience as a single-dose, oral therapy. Beginning in 2000, fluoroquinolones were no longer recommended for gonorrhea treatment in persons who acquired their infections in Asia or the Pacific Islands (including Hawaii); in 2002, this recommendation was extended to California (2). In 2004, CDC recommended that fluoroquinolones not be used in the United States to treat gonorrhea in men who have sex with men (MSM). On the basis of the most recent evidence, CDC no longer recommends the use of fluoroquinolones for the treatment of gonococcal infections and associated conditions such as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). Consequently, only one class of drugs, the cephalosporins, is still recommended and available for the treatment of gonorrhea. The Center for Disease Control has recently (April 2007) updated treatment guidelines.
Antibiotics can successfully cure gonorrhea in adolescents and adults. However, drug-resistant strains of gonorrhea are increasing in many areas of the world, including the United States, and successful treatment of gonorrhea is becoming more difficult. Because many people with gonorrhea also have chlamydia, another sexually transmitted disease, antibiotics for both infections are usually given together. Persons with gonorrhea should be tested for other STDs. It is important to take all of the medication prescribed to cure gonorrhea. Although medication will stop the infection, it will not repair any permanent damage done by the disease. People who have had gonorrhea and have been treated can get the disease again if they have sexual contact with persons infected with gonorrhea. If a person's symptoms continue even after receiving treatment, he or she should return to a doctor to be reevaluated.
Azithromycin (given as a single dose of 2 g) has been recommended if there is concurrent infection with chlamydia. However, since 2000, the Gonococcal Resistance to Antimicrobials Surveillance Programme (GRASP) has gathered data on drug resistant strains of gonorrhoea in the UK. In 2005, 2.2% of cases were azithromycin resistant and in some regions of the UK this extended to 5% of cases. The mainstay of treatment now is a cephalosporin with azithromycin (to cover chlamydia). A single dose of oral ciprofloxacin 500 mg is effective if the organism is known to be sensitive, but fluoroquinolones were removed from the UK recommendations for empirical therapy in 2003 because of increasing resistance rates. In 2005, resistance rates for ciprofloxacin were 22% for the whole of the UK (42% for London, 10% for the rest of the UK).
The term the clap was replaced with the similar sounding the jack in the 1975 AC/DC song The Jack, which used the metaphor of playing cards and poker as sexual innuendo in the original LP version. However, live recordings of the song make direct references to the disease.