Gonorrhea is essentially a bacterial infection caused by the Neisseria gonorrhoeae strain. It is primarily transmitted through vaginal, oral or anal intercourse.
Neisseria Gonorrhoeae: The Source of Gonorrhea
The exact origins of the Neisseria (N.) gonorrhoeae strain is lost in the annals of history. The earliest records of this disease come from Ancient Greece, making it one of the oldest-known diseases. In fact, the word gonorrhea itself comes from the Greek term that means "flow of seed," as it was originally thought to be a leakage of semen from a man's penis.1
N. gonorrhoeae mainly infects the mucous membranes of the male and female sex organs. However, the infection can spread to the eyes, throat and rectum — organs that contain mucous membranes as well.2 In severe cases, the bacteria may spread to your bloodstream, infecting your internal organs and causing various symptoms.3
Factors That Increase Your Risk of Gonorrhea
There are several factors that influence your risk of gonorrhea, such as:4
- Age: Younger women typically have a higher risk of contracting gonorrhea if the vaginal epithelium has not been keratinized by estrogen yet.5
- Having New and/or Multiple Sex Partners: Your risk of getting gonorrhea increases if you have a new sex partner who hasn't been tested for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The risk goes even higher if you and your partner have multiple partners.
- Unprotected Sex: Not using condoms increases your risk of getting gonorrhea (and other STDs). Anal sex has been linked to an increased risk of gonorrhea as well.
- Previous Cases of Sexual Diseases: One of the defining characteristics of gonorrhea is its ability to reappear even if treatmentwas successful. If you've had gonorrhea before, then there's a chance of getting it again.
Possible Complications if Gonorrhea Is Left Untreated
The fact that gonorrhea is uncomfortable is reason enough to have it treated right away. But if you just ignore it, you can develop several complications, such as:6
- Infertility: Women can develop pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), a condition that affects your uterus and fallopian tubes. PID can cause scarring, resulting in an increased risk of fertility. For men, gonorrhea can lead to epididymitis, which is the inflammation of your epididymis, a tube where the sperm passes to the vas deferens. In the same manner as PID, epididymitis can lead to infertility.
- Invasive Gonorrheal Infection: The bacteria may find its way into your bloodstream, causing you to develop a condition called disseminated gonococcal infection (DGI). It causes various symptoms, but mostly manifests as joint pain, fever and a generally unwell feeling.7
- Neonatal Conjunctivitis: A newborn infant is at risk of getting gonococcal conjunctivitis (pink eye) from a mother who has vaginal gonorrhea during childbirth.8 As the infant passes through the birth canal, some of the bacteria can transfer to the eyes, causing redness, inflammation and a discharge.