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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.
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.
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.
Oral (oropharyngeal) gonorrhea: what it is and how it’s treated
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.
- Bever, L. (2019). Got gonorrhea? It may have come from French kissing, study says. Retrieved August 27, 2019 from https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2019/05/09/got-gonorrhea-it-may-have-come-french-kissing-study-says/?noredirect=on
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2018). Gonorrhea – 2017 Sexually Transmitted Diseases Surveillance. Retrieved August 27, 2019 from https://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/2018/2017-std-surveillance-report.html
- Charles, S. (2018). Gonorrhea is nearly impossible to treat, but a new drug offers hope. Retrieved August 27, 2019 from https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/gonorrhea-nearly-impossible-treat-new-drug-offers-hope-n938251
- Chow, E. P. F., Cornelisse, V. J., Williamson, D. A., Priest, D., Hocking, J. S., Bradshaw, C. S., et al. (2019). Kissing may be an important and neglected risk factor for oropharyngeal gonorrhoea: a cross-sectional study in men who have sex with men. Sexually Transmitted Infections, 95(7), 516–521. doi: 10.1136/sextrans-2018-053896. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31073095/
Dr. Mike is a licensed physician and the Director, Medical Content & Education at Ro.