A new study from Australia claims that gonorrhea may spread from one throat to another through tongue kissing. It recommends that public health authorities update their guidance on the disease.
Chlamydia and gonorrhea are infections passed on through unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
Typical symptoms of infection include a thick green or yellow discharge from the vagina or penis, and pain during urination. However, around 1 in 10 people experience no symptoms at all.
Many health organizations, including the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reflect this in their guidance on sexually-transmitted infections.
In what is known as a “systematic review,” published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases, Australian researchers examined the results of six existing studies on oral transmission of sexually transmitted diseases. Specifically, they looked for evidence of whether “sloppy kissing” could pass on diseases like chlamydia or gonorrhea.
One of the studies they found looked at 2,000 gay and bisexual men.
That study revealed that men who tested positive for gonorrhea were more likely to have it in their throat than in their penis. When looking at the subject’s sexual histories, it appeared that some men would have had to have acquired gonorrhea through tongue action alone — and not through oral or anal sex.
While the researchers found no evidence to suggest chlamydia spreads this way, the study did suggest that tongue kissing can pass on the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae or gonococcus, which causes gonorrhea.
As such, those behind the study are recommending that public health authorities update their guidance to reflect that gonorrhea may be transmitted in a way that was historically believed to be impossible: simply through kissing.
“A number of pieces of evidence suggest transmission from the oropharynx [back of the throat] may be more common than previously thought,” the researchers wrote. “[The bacteria] can be cultured from saliva, suggesting that the exchange of saliva between individuals may potentially transmit gonorrhea.”
The researchers also noted that using saliva as a lubricant during sex could also pose a risk of transmitting the disease.
“Reinforcing the message that oropharyngeal gonorrhea could be transmitted through kissing may inform the development of novel approaches to prevent gonorrhea,” the researchers wrote.
Dr. Eric Chow, an STI epidemiologist and biostatistician based at the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre, who was one of the study’s authors, told the Daily Mail, “We think it is possible to catch gonorrhea via kissing. I think the guidelines should be updated.”
However, it should be noted that the rate of mouth-to-mouth transmission is probably relatively low, as other studies would have revealed these findings previously if it was a more common occurrence.
The number of gonorrhea infections has increased in recent years, with CDC data indicating that infection rates increased more than 4% between 2020 and 2021 alone.
The disease is typically treated with a shot of antibiotics. To cut down on transmission rates, some health experts have recommended use of DoxyPEP, in which a person takes an antibiotic after sex to minimize the chances of acquiring a sexually transmitted infection.
However, there has been increasing concern in recent years about the bacteria developing resistance to the family of antibiotics typically used to treat it.
As such, it is important for sexually active gay and bisexual men to have regular checkups where they are tested for sexually transmitted diseases, even if they are not exhibiting symptoms, given that there may now be yet another route for such infections like gonorrhea to spread.
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