Gonorrhea might strike you as one of those diseases that antibiotics have all but vanquished, right?

Wrong. The sexually transmitted disease, the second most commonly reported one in the U.S., is actually an alarming health problem because it's becoming drug-resistant, and before too long, it may exist in a form that no antibiotic, however potent, can kill.

Over the years, the very medications that once conquered the bacteria have gradually become less effective. Only one class of antibiotics, known as cephalosporins, was still proving effective. Now, certain strains of gonorrhea appear even to be resistant to the cephalosporins, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now that drug-resistant gonorrhea is on the increase, it's getting harder and harder to treat this condition.

"The virulence of the bacteria is changing," explains Richard V. Lee, MD, professor of medicine and anthropology at the State University of New York at Buffalo.  "And when these bacteria get into a person's system, they can set into motion inflammation that can even kill pretty quickly."

In a woman, gonorrhea can scar the fallopian tubes and make conception nearly impossible, says Jennifer Wu, MD, an obstetrician/gynecologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "Undiagnosed gonorrhea can lead to infertility," she says. "And we are seeing more and more cases."

The bacteria that causes this STD easily grows and multiplies in moist, warm areas of the body like the reproductive tract, the anus, the mouth, the throat and the eyes. Of the more than 700,000 people who contract new gonorrhea infections each year in the U.S., only about half are reported to the CDC. It's spread through contact with the vagina, penis, mouth or anus, and it can be either transmitted or acquired even without ejaculation. A mother can infect her baby with gonorrhea during delivery, and the baby can then acquire blindness, a joint infection or even a life threatening blood infection.

The highest reported gonorrhea rates are among sexually active teenagers, young adults and African-Americans. It can be virtually impossible to know if a partner has gonorrhea since men may be completely asymptomatic and women may have extremely mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all. Untreated gonorrhea can spread to the blood or to the joints, where it can be life-threatening. And individuals with gonorrhea are more susceptible to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The best way to avoid contracting gonorrhea in the first place is to be in a mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who is known to be uninfected. Using latex condoms - correctly and consistently - also reduces the risk of getting gonorrhea.

Reducing the risk of acquiring this potentially life threatening STD is important. "You think of gonorrhea as being on a par with smallpox," Wu says. "But unfortunately, it's still around and it's a real threat, especially to young people."


"Gonorrhea: CDC Fact Sheet." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


"Basic information about antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.