Gonorrhea is the second most prevalent sexually transmitted disease found amongst teenagers. They need to know what it is, how they catch it, and how they can prevent catching it.
The second-most common STD currently infecting teenagers and young adults, Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection of the urethra in boys and the urethra and/or cervix in girls. It can also infect the rectum, throat, pelvic organs, and (though rarely) the membrane lining the eyelids and eye surfaces. Because of its high rate of infection and its ability to infect so many areas, Gonorrhea is one of the easiest social diseases to transmit by sexual contact – any sexual contact – whether oral, vaginal, or anal.
Common street names for Gonorrhea include The Clap, The Drip, and GC. Annually 600,000 cases are reported in the United States, while it is believed that another one million go unreported. Approximately 75% of the cases brought to the attention of health officials are in people 15-29 years old with the highest rate of infection appearing in girls 15-29 and boys 20-24.
Gonorrhea can be transmitted any time by a person infected with it, whether they show symptoms or not. Someone with this STD is always contagious until they are treated! Any type of sexual contact with an infected person will most likely transmit the disease, whether full-blown sexual intercourse is involved or not. Oral sex is still sex and Gonorrhea can be contracted as easily by oral sex as with vaginal or anal. And unlike some diseases and infections, once treated for Gonorrhea a person can still become infected again if they are exposed to it again.
One of the reasons Gonorrhea has such a high infection rate and causes so many outbreaks among teenagers is because about half of the people infected show no symptoms. Even when symptoms do occur they may not appear for 30 days (although sometimes they will show up within 2-5 days). And some people eventually develop symptoms, but not until the infection has spread to other areas of the body. In girls these symptoms may be so mild they are mistaken for a mild bladder or vaginal infection, though they may include painful or frequent urination, anal itching/pain/bleeding/discharge, abnormal vaginal discharge/bleeding, abnormal vaginal bleeding with intercourse or between periods, genital itching, irregular menstrual bleeding, lower abdominal pain, fever and general tiredness, swollen and painful glands at the opening of the vagina, painful sex, sore throat (though rare), or pink eye (also rare). In boys symptoms are usually serious enough for medical help to be sought, though many have mild to no symptoms and may transmit the disease unknowingly to their partners. If they do have symptoms they may include abnormal discharge from the penis, painful or frequent urination, anal itching/pain/bleeding/discharge, sore throat (though rare), or pink eye (also rare). If untreated, symptoms may spread to areas besides the genitals and include a rash, joint pain, or inflamed tendons.
Unlike some serious STD’s such as Herpes or HIV, Gonorrhea can be treated and cured and cause no lasting problems. However, it must be treated early on or else serious complications will occur. In girls these can be pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, abscesses in or near the ovaries, tubal pregnancies, inflammation of the glands at the front of the vagina, chronic pelvic pain, or Fitz-Hugh-Curtis Syndrome (which is inflammation of the capsule covering the liver and the surrounding area). Gonorrhea can adversely affect pregnant women and newborn babies. It can cause miscarriages or premature births, as well as being passed easily from an infected mother to their child.
Just because Gonorrhea is very common and easily treated does not mean anyone should take this disease lightly. Any person having any kind of sex should take a minute and get a condom! It is not worth it to get a few minutes of “action” and then suffer weeks, months, or even years of consequences. Even if it is just oral sex, condoms should be used! Edible and flavored condoms have been developed specifically for this purpose and using them is better then dealing with the disease later.
Boys and girls at high risk of catching Gonorrhea and other STDs are those with multiple sex partners, high-risk partners (who have had multiple partners or been infected/had sex with an infected partner), those having unprotected sexual contact of any kind, and those having sex before they are 18. It is important that anyone having sex, thinking of having sex, or preparing to have sex, is responsible for their own safety. They should get tested and have their partners get tested! If teenagers want to act like adults and be treated like adults then they need to act responsible and stay safe. If their partners don’t want to use condoms or won’t get tested then they need to do the safe and selfish thing and stay away!
The media is full of television programs, movies, and magazine articles focusing on teenagers lately and the recent outbreaks of STDs in high schools all over the country – especially Gonorrhea. Teens need to take a cue from the problems they are seeing on the TV screen and take the threat of Gonorrhea seriously. STDs are not a joke, they don’t just happen to “everyone else” or “dirty people” or “sluts.” They can happen to anyone at anytime if that person is not practicing safe sex.
Girls should seek medical attention if they exhibit any of the symptoms listed previously or suffer sudden sever pain in the lower abdomen, lower abdominal pain as well as vaginal bleeding/discharge with a fever, or urinary burning/frequency/inability with a fever. Boys should seek medical help if they suffer any of the previous symptoms or discharge from the penis with a fever, urinary burning/frequency/inability with a fever, or pain/swelling/tenderness in the scrotum with a fever. Anyone should seek medical help if they suffer any of the listed symptoms, know people who are getting sick with Gonorrhea, suspect their sexual partners of being high-risk or infected, or hear of an outbreak at school or work and have had sexual contact with anyone that may be infected.
Someone who suspects that they may be infected with Gonorrhea should seek medical attention as soon as possible. This disease can be treated with antibiotics and visits to the doctor are confidential, whether it is a family physician or someone from Planned Parenthood, a hospital emergency room, or a clinic. When a doctor goes to make a diagnosis they will need to perform a physical exam as well as a medical history and it is important that all questions they ask (however personal they seem) are answered as honestly as possible. The doctors are not making judgments on their patients based on their questions and answers, they are just getting all of the information they need to help the patient. They will also remind their patients that being treated for Gonorrhea does not keep it from ever coming back again. If a person who has had it once comes in contact with it again, even after treatment, they can still become reinfected!
Prevention is each person’s responsibility and can be accomplished easily if everyone does their best to practice safe sex. They need to use condoms, avoid sexual contact of any sort if they have an STD or are being treated for one, and avoid all intimate contact with a person who has symptoms/has been exposed to/or has an STD. Other prevention methods include not having more than one sexual partner at a time and even abstaining from sex. Information and help can be easily reached through Internet websites, school nurses, Planned Parenthood offices, clinics, family doctor’s offices, the STD National Hotline (1-800-227-8922), and even friends or parents if a person has an open relationship with them.
The most important thing for all teenagers and young adults to remember about Gonorrhea and any STD is that sex is serious and can have serious consequences. They need to be selfish and be responsible and do whatever they need to in order to stay safe.