By Delanee Hawkins
Welcome to the third exciting installment of the STI Spotlight series! This week, join me in an exploration of one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the United States, gonorrhea. Also called “the clap” or “the drip,” gonorrhea is caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae and affects almost one million people in the United States per year, according to information on the Planned Parenthood website. Luckily, the infection is completely curable with pharmaceutical intervention, and any permanent damage can be mitigated.
In around 80 percent of people with vaginas, gonorrhea often does not present any obvious signs or symptoms. The other 20 percent, however, may experience abdominal/uterine cramping, pain during sexual intercourse and/or urination, swelling of the genital region and/or yellow-green vaginal discharge. Most people with penises do experience symptomatic gonorrhea, with the most common symptoms including urethral pus and painful, frequent urination. Gonorrhea, in addition to affecting the genitals, can also spread to the anus and mouth. Anal gonorrhea commonly results in itching, discharge from the anus and painful defecation. Oral gonorrhea only shows symptoms 10 percent of the time, but the most common symptoms are a sore throat or trouble swallowing—which are symptomatic of virtually any illness, so don’t freak out about that swollen gullet! Symptoms occur relatively quickly, most often within two weeks of the sexual activity that caused the infection, according to Planned Parenthood. Fortunately, there’s a surefire way to ease your anxiety, now that you’re over-analyzing every anal itch you might have. Gonorrhea can be detected with a standard STI test and all you have to do is pee in a cup or get the suspicious area swabbed.
What happens if you’re foolish and let gonorrhea go untreated? Like many other STIs, the complications can get pretty serious if you let the bacteria go unchecked. Gonorrhea can cause miscarriage or stillbirth and also has the potential to spread from parent to child, particularly if vaginal delivery occurs. Gonorrheal eye infections in newborns can become so severe that standard procedure now dictates that all babies, no matter the STI status of their parents, receive erythromycin (antibiotic) eye-drops immediately after birth. Babies with untreated gonorrheal infections can develop blood and joint disease and even meningitis. If you’re not pregnant and the risk to potential babies is not an effective scare tactic, consider the possibility of developing pelvic inflammatory disease (in people with uteruses) or epididymitis (in people with testicles) which can each cause permanent infertility and other complications. Finally, around three percent of people with untreated gonorrhea can develop disseminated gonococcal infection (DGI), which causes arthritis and can result in permanent joint damage.
Let’s all take a moment to emphasize the importance of annual (at least!) STI testing for those who are sexually active. So let’s say you’ve got the clap. That STI test came back positive, and you’re in a mopey mood because now you have to snap this news to last weekend’s awkward Kagin hook-up. Never fear; the wonders of modern medicine will come to your rescue once again! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends treating basic gonorrhea with dual antibiotics: ceftriaxone, injected into the arm, along with either azithromycin or doxycycline, each taken in pill form. Your partner(s) will also need to be tested and, if necessary, treated. You will not be allowed to engage in sexual activity until seven days after treatment is completed. Due to increasing concerns regarding antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea strains, the CDC recommends returning to a healthcare provider if symptoms persist after treatment is complete.
Once again, we’re at the point in the column where I reiterate my constant advice. Use barrier methods of protection no matter which type of sex you’re having or whose genitals are involved. Learn how to use condoms (internal or external) correctly to give yourself the best chance of a disease-free sexual encounter. Even if you have an additional type of birth control, condoms are essential in preventing STIs and should be used unless you are 300 percent sure that both/all partners are only having sex with each other (and even then I would use caution). If the heat of the moment gets away from you and you end up having sex without barriers, schedule an STI test as soon as you can. The Health and Wellness Center is conveniently located in the middle of campus and can ease any anxieties with a simple urine test or genital swab. If you notice strange discharge or bad feelings when you urinate, do not ignore it in hopes that it will go away! You’re what we call an “adult” now, and that means taking charge of your sexual health like you know what you’re doing.
Questions? Comments? Insults? Email me at [email protected] but remember that it won’t be anonymous.