About Gonorrhea

A sexually transmitted disease (STD) is a disease that you get from having sexual contact with another person. All STDs can be treated, and some can be cured. They can be serious, however, and sometimes even fatal. Sexually transmitted diseases affect people all over the world. Millions of people, old and young, are infected with STDs every year. Hundreds of thousands are infected with gonorrhea.

Gonorrhea is a common and highly contagious STD. It is one of the world’s oldest diseases. Hippocrates, a Greek physician, wrote about patients with symptoms of gonorrhea as long ago as 500 BC. Even the word “gonorrhea” has existed for centuries. In the year AD 130, a doctor named Galen came up with the word, which is Greek for “flow of seed.” (Galen mistakenly thought that the abnormal discharge commonly associated with the disease was semen, or “seed.”)

Gonorrhea is also known by several slang terms you may have heard before, such as “the drip” or “the clap.” “The drip” refers to the symptom that Galen noticed, which is a puslike discharge. Nobody knows quite where the nickname “the clap” came from, but there are a few reasonable guesses. An old French word, clapier, meant a brothel, or a house of prostitution, where cases of gonorrhea were probably widespread. The name may also have come from a woman named Mother Clap, who ran a brothel in London in the 1700s.

What Causes Gonorrhea

Neisseria gonorrhoeae
Neisseria gonorrhoeae
We now know that gonorrhea is caused by a bacterium called Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which grows in warm, moist areas of the body such as the cervix, urethra, throat, rectum, or even the eyes. Bacteria are tiny, single-celled organisms that live all around us. Most bacteria are not detrimental, but some are. When these harmful bacteria get inside your system, they can grow and multiply and cause health problems. Luckily, most of these are easily treated with antibiotics, so if a bacterial disease is caught and treated early, it won’t have any long-term effects.

Gonorrhea spreads very easily: the bacteria that cause it can move from one person to another through contact with semen or vaginal fluid. The delicate tissues of the genitals, rectum, and throat are vulnerable to infection by these bacteria. Any type of unprotected sexual contact with an infected partner, whether vaginal, oral, or anal, is enough to transmit the disease. It can also be spread from an infected pregnant mother to her baby during childbirth. Gonorrhea is not spread through physical contact like hugging or kissing. This means that only people who are sexually active are at risk of contracting the disease.

Rate of Infection

The CDC reported 336,742 cases of gonorrhea in 2008, reflecting a small decrease of 5.4 percent since 2007.
In the United States, local STD prevention programs—including hospitals, doctors, and STD clinics—are required to report how many patients they treat each year for certain sexually transmitted diseases to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, the main agency in the U.S. government for protecting the health and safety of Americans. According to the CDC, more than 800,000 gonorrhea infections are estimated to occur each year in the United States. An increase in the number of reported cases of gonorrhea for both American men and women occurred in 2012 (the most recent year for which data is available). Overall, rates increased among persons aged 20 years or older, but decreased among those aged 15–19 years. Similarly, data from the Government of Canada shows that the number of reported cases of gonorrhea among Canadians has risen more than 53 percent in the past ten years. Because some cases are never diagnosed and others do not get reported, the number of cases reported is less than the actual number of cases occurring.

Gonorrhea is the second most commonly reported infectious disease in the United States and Canada. Chlamydia—another sexually transmitted bacterial infection—takes the number one spot. The number of reported cases of chlamydia are almost three times that of gonorrhea. The number of chlamydia cases continues to rise every year. According to 2012 data from the CDC (the most recent year for which data is available), women aged 20–24 years had the most chlamydia cases of any age group at 3,695.5 cases per 100,000 females. Young girls aged 15–19 had 3,291.5 reported cases per 100,000 females. This was the first time that chlamydia rates among 15–19 year old females had decreased since 2000. The CDC can use statistics like these to show how levels of infection change over time and to help decide the most effective ways to prevent the spread of STDs.

Risk Factors

There are several high-risk behaviors that can increase your chances of contracting an STD like gonorrhea. These include:

• Unprotected sex—that is, sex of any kind without the use of a condom or dental dam (a small sheet of latex that acts as a barrier between the vagina or anus and the mouth).

• Unprotected sexual activity at an early age. The rate of STD infection in younger age groups is increasing, so there is a growing chance that by having sex at a young age, you could be having sex with someone who has an STD.

• Unprotected sex with multiple partners. Each sexual partner has a chance of having an STD. The greater number of partners you have, the greater number of chances you take.

• Drug injection, or having sex with a partner who injects drugs. Needles used for injecting drugs can also transmit disease, if they are shared with other people. In addition, drug use can lower inhibitions and cause you to do things you wouldn't normally do, like having sex without protection.

There are also certain populations that have a higher rate of gonorrhea and therefore have a higher risk of contracting the disease. According to the CDC, in 2012, the number of reported gonorrhea cases remained the highest among African Americans (462.0 cases per 100,000 population). The rate of infection among African American men and women was 14.9 times the rate among Caucasian men and women. Young people are also at a higher risk of contracting gonorrhea. The most recent recorded rates were highest among women aged 20–24 years and 15–19 years. Among men, the rate was highest among those aged 20–24 years. There are even differences related to gender. Since 2001, females have had a slightly higher rate of gonorrhea infection than males.