Among the many sexually transmitted infections (STIs), you have probably heard of ‘the clap’. This infection is also called gonorrhea since it is caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae. This bacteria infects mainly the genital tract, but it can also infect other sites in the body including the rectum and throat.

N. gonorrhoeae can be found in the semen or vaginal fluid of infected individuals; so using a condom (which prevents these fluids from mixing) significantly decreases the chance of getting gonorrhea and other STIs.

N. gonorrhoeae is an obligate human pathogen, which means it’s pretty wimpy and can only live inside humans. While you can’t get gonorrhea from sitting on a toilet seat, you can get it from having unprotected sex (vaginal, oral or rectal) with someone who is infected.

Did You Know?
People can become infected with more than one STI at one time. The symptoms for gonorrhea are very similar to chlamydia infections, and co-infections with both STIs are quite common.

Gonorrhea infections usually result in painful and/or burning sensations during urination and the production of pus for both men and women. Pus is the resulting mixture when neutrophils — white blood cells in your body that work to fight off infection — ingest and kill the bacteria and then release the by-products.

While most infected men will show some symptoms, up to 80 per cent of infected women are asymptomatic, meaning they show no signs of infection. Sometimes women don’t even know they are infected until their male partners tell them they have gonorrhea too! Serious side effects can arise from untreated gonorrhea infections in women, such as ectopic pregnancy (when a fertilized egg begins to grow outside of the womb) or sterility (inability to reproduce).

Did You Know?
In rare cases, N. gonorrhoeae infection can become systemic (bacteria can enter the blood stream and spread throughout the body). Symptoms of systemic gonorrhea infection include fever, skin lesions and inflammation of the joints – some patients can be diagnosed with arthritis, when really they are showing symptoms of systemic gonorrhea. !-- alt-->

Antibiotics can clear a gonorrhea infection, but it’s important that both infected partners get treatment. This prevents re-infection, because if one person remains infected, they can pass the infection back to their partner, even after using antibiotics to get a clean bill of health! N. gonorrhoeae infection does not produce a memory response, the part of the immune system that remembers how to fight off an infection. In other words, a person can get gonorrhea over and over again, throughout their lifetime.

Did You Know?
Gonorrhea infection of the eye (called gonococcal conjunctivitis) can lead to blindness if not treated. Newborns can get this infection by passing through the birth canal of an infected mother. This is why hospitals typically treat newborns with anti-microbial eye drops soon after birth.

While death from gonorrhea infection is rare, having gonorrhea is not pleasant. If you suspect you may be infected, book some time with your doctor.

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alt-->N. gonorrhoeae (red)can infect many cells of the human body, including T cells (in purple). T cells are part of the immune system,and have an important role in fighting off infections.

References:

The Textbook of Bacteriology: Gonorrhea

Global Prevalence and Incidence of Selected Curable Sexually Transmitted Infections: Overview and Estimates. World Health Organization (2001).

Edwards JL, Apicella MA. Themolecular mechanisms used by Neisseria gonorrhoeae to initiate infection differ between men and women (2004) ClinMicrobiol Rev. Oct;17(4):965-81

Article first published on May 13, 2010.

Photo Credit: stock.xchng

Nancy So

I am  a PhD student in the Department of  Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto.  I'm studying how bacteria, specifically the bacteria that causes the sexually transmitted infection gonorrhea, affects the immune system.  I really like cupcakes, and am probably playing ultimate frisbee when I'm not in the lab.


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