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Although oral herpes (HSV1) is commonly spread through kissing if the infected person has an active sore, experts thought that almost all other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) could only be transmitted through sexual contact. But research from Australia published in 2019 suggests that gonorrhea can be spread via kissing with tongue — a.k.a. deep kissing, French kissing, or whatever you like to call making out.
- Between 2009 and 2017, reported cases of gonorrhea rose by 75%, according to the CDC.
- Though oral gonorrhea is quite common, it was thought that it was only transmitted via oral sex.
- Findings from an Australian study suggest that it can also be spread through kissing.
- The risk that gonorrhea is a “kissing disease” is mainly theoretical at this point, and more research needs to be done.
What is gonorrhea?
Gonorrhea is an STI caused by the Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacterium. It spreads through vaginal, anal, and oral sex and can infect the penis, vagina, throat, rectum, and eyes. Genital infections are most frequently seen, but oral gonorrhea is also common.
Gonorrhea might produce no symptoms, but it can also cause painful urination, a pus-like discharge, or pain or swelling in one or both testicles. Left untreated, gonorrhea can cause a testicular infection in men, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in women. In rare cases, it can spread to the blood and joints. Oral gonorrhea may also be asymptomatic, or it could result in a sore throat.
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What is the treatment for gonorrhea?
The first-line treatment for gonorrhea is two antibiotics — one administered as an injection in a doctor’s office, the second a prescription taken orally. This is also sometimes a one-time dose that is given in the doctor’s office.
Can you get gonorrhea from kissing?
Possibly. According to a study published in the May 2019 issue of The Journal of Sexually Transmitted Infections, researchers studied 3,677 sexual-history questionnaires given to gay and bisexual men at a sexual health clinic. 6% of the respondents had tested positive for oral gonorrhea (Chow, 2019).
The study participants reported an average of four kissing-only partners, five kissing-with-sex partners, and one sex-only partner over the past three months. According to the scientists, the men with a higher number of kissing-only and kissing-with-sex partners had a greater risk of contracting oral gonorrhea.
“We found that the more people an individual kissed also placed them at an increased risk of having throat gonorrhea, irrespective of whether sex occurred with the kissing. This data challenges the accepted traditional transmission routes of gonorrhea held for the past 100 years, where a partner’s penis was thought to be the source of throat infection,” study author Eric Chow told The Washington Post (Bever, 2019). “We found after we controlled statistically for the number of men kissed, that ‘the number of men someone had sex with but did not kiss was not associated with throat gonorrhea.”
Researchers knew that oral gonorrhea could live in the throat without symptoms, and unwittingly be passed on to others. But they thought the transmission mode was oral sex — strictly oral-genital, not oral-oral. However, the frequency of the latter infection might be difficult for researchers to pin down because it’s difficult to find people with kissing-only partners who have oral gonorrhea and are willing to discuss it, a urology nurse at Columbia University told the Post.
How common is gonorrhea?
The study has attracted headlines because gonorrhea and other STIs are on the rise in all populations, not just in men who have sex with men (MSM).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2017, 555,608 cases of gonorrhea were reported — an 18.6% increase over the previous year and a 75.2% increase since 2009. Cases increased 19.3% in men and 17.8% in women (CDC, 2018).
Health officials are concerned because more and more cases are proving resistant to current antibiotics, limiting the number of treatment options that are effective. (That’s why you may have been scared out of your wits by a TV news segment on “super gonorrhea” (Charles, 2018) in the past few years). “Since there is no vaccine to prevent gonorrhea, and the possibility of untreatable gonorrhea is looming larger, it is imperative that we develop new drugs to treat it,” Stephanie Taylor, MD, professor of medicine and microbiology at LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine told NBC News.
So can saliva spread gonorrhea?
It’s clear that a person can transmit gonorrhea from their throat to a sexual partner’s penis, and vice versa. The risk that gonorrhea is a “kissing disease” is mainly theoretical at this point, and researchers are keeping an eye on it.
How can I prevent gonorrhea?
Some researchers have suggested that mouthwash is a cheap intervention and may kill gonorrhea germs in the throat, but more research is needed. The best way to prevent gonorrhea is to use a condom during sexual activity (including oral sex) or to be monogamous with a partner who has tested negative for gonorrhea and gets regular STI screenings. Get regular STI screenings yourself — every three months is a good benchmark if you’re sexually active. And see a doctor if you have any symptoms of gonorrhea, so you don’t pass the infection on to your partner.