The Gonorrhea


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part a shows a penis with white discharge. Part b shows a vagina with a metal tool. Part c is a micrograph of urethral discharge showing red spots on a yellow background.
(a) Clinical photograph of gonococcal discharge from penis. The lesions on the skin could indicate co-infection with another STI. (b) Purulent discharge originating from the cervix and accumulating in the vagina of a patient with gonorrhea. (c) A micrograph of urethral discharge shows gram-negative diplococci (paired cells) both inside and outside the leukocytes (large cells with lobed nuclei). These results could be used to diagnose gonorrhea in a male patient, but female vaginal samples may contain other Neisseria spp. even if the patient is not infected with N. gonorrhoeae. (credit a, b: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; credit c: modification of work by American Society for Microbiology)

OpenStax Microbiology

Also known as the clap, gonorrhea is a common sexually transmitted disease of the reproductive system that is especially prevalent in individuals between the ages of 15 and 24. It is caused by Neisseria gonorrhoeae, often called gonococcus or GC, which have fimbriae that allow the cells to attach to epithelial cells. It also has a type of lipopolysaccharide endotoxin called lipooligosaccharide as part of the outer membrane structure that enhances its pathogenicity. In addition to causing urethritis, N. gonorrhoeae can infect other body tissues such as the skin, meninges, pharynx, and conjunctiva.

Many infected individuals (both men and women) are asymptomatic carriers of gonorrhea. When symptoms do occur, they manifest differently in males and females. Males may develop pain and burning during urination and discharge from the penis that may be yellow, green, or white. Less commonly, the testicles may become swollen or tender. Over time, these symptoms can increase and spread. In some cases, chronic infection develops. The disease can also develop in the rectum, causing symptoms such as discharge, soreness, bleeding, itching, and pain (especially in association with bowel movements).

Women may develop pelvic pain, discharge from the vagina, intermenstrual bleeding (i.e., bleeding not associated with normal menstruation), and pain or irritation associated with urination. As with men, the infection can become chronic. In women, however, chronic infection can cause increases in menstrual flow. Rectal infection can also occur, with the symptoms previously described for men. Infections that spread to the endometrium and fallopian tubes can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), characterized by pain in the lower abdominal region, dysuria, vaginal discharge, and fever. PID can also lead to infertility through scarring and blockage of the fallopian tubes (salpingitis); it may also increase the risk of a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy, which occurs when a fertilized egg begins developing somewhere other than the uterus (e.g., in the fallopian tube or ovary).

When a gonorrhea infection disseminates throughout the body, serious complications can develop. The infection may spread through the blood (bacteremia) and affect organs throughout the body, including the heart (gonorrheal endocarditis), joints (gonorrheal arthritis), and meninges encasing the brain (meningitis).

Urethritis caused by N. gonorrhoeae can be difficult to treat due to antibiotic resistance. Some strains have developed resistance to the fluoroquinolones, so cephalosporins are often a first choice for treatment. Because co-infection with C. trachomatis is common, the CDC recommends treating with a combination regimen of ceftriaxone and azithromycin. Treatment of sexual partners is also recommended to avoid reinfection and spread of infection to others.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: