Gonorrhea: A Woman’s Disease

Gonorrhea has been lurking for thousands of years. Dr. Rudolph Kampmeier, an expert in infectious diseases, noticed that among the ancient Greeks, gonorrhea was perceived as the “woman’s disease” that led to “running of the penis.”

Throughout history, gonorrhea turned into a marker for STDs, including syphilis, in light of its obvious impact on the male urethra, bringing on a persistent leakage or discharge. In spite of the fact that the bacterial way of the contamination was not known until this century, the illness early on was connected with brothels and prostitutes, not considered an issue for “decent” women.

Likewise, changes in the rate of gonorrhea (now known not as an infection created by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae) mirror the ascent and fall of different STDs in various countries. Its rate ascended around 13 percent a year through the mid-1970s, believed to be partly due to soldiers’ bringing it home from Vietnam, when somewhere around 900,000 and 1 million cases were being accounted for every year.

The number of cases stabilized during the 1980s, showed a 22 percent drop between 1986 and 1989, and is now again on the rise. Just as a portion of the drop may be attributed to safe sex practices adopted because of the fear of AIDS, perhaps a portion of the subsequent increase can be attributed to complacency about AIDS, which has led to an abandonment of safe sex practices. Public health officials surmise that in 1995 an estimated 1 million or more Americans will contract gonorrhea.

Signs and Symptoms


Only about half of the women with this infection have any initial symptoms of infection. When these do occur, they include heavy vaginal discharge, abnormal vaginal bleeding between periods or excessively heavy menstrual flow, and slightly painful and frequent urination. In up to one-half of women with genital infection, the anorectal area becomes involved from local contamination (even in the absence of anal intercourse), causing rectal discomfort, itching, a yellow or slightly bloody rectal discharge, and in severe cases sharp and throbbing rectal pain. (By contrast, anorectal infection in a man almost always means he has acquired his infection by anal intercourse with an infected partner.)

In some women, the disease may produce a skin rash and fleeting stabs of arthritis-like pain in the joints of the arms and knees. Many of the symptoms of gonorrhea can also be produced by chlamydia, which coexists with gonorrhea in up to half the cases seen today.