What causes gonorrhea?

Updated: Jun 15, 2021
  • Author: Shahab Qureshi, MD, FACP; Chief Editor: Pranatharthi Haran Chandrasekar, MBBS, MD  more...
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Disseminated gonococcal infection (DGI) occurs following approximately 1% of genital infections. Patients with DGI may present with symptoms of rash, fever, arthralgias, migratory polyarthritis, septic arthritis, tendonitis, tenosynovitis, endocarditis, or meningitis.

N gonorrhoeae organisms spread from a primary site, such as the endocervix, the urethra, the pharynx, or the rectum, and disseminate to the blood to infect other end organs. Usually, multiple sites, such as the skin and the joints, are infected. Neisserial organisms disseminate to the blood due to a variety of predisposing factors, such as host physiologic changes, virulence factors of the organism itself, and failures of the host's immune defenses. [7]

For example, changes in the vaginal pH that occur during menses and pregnancy and the puerperium period make the vaginal environment more suitable for the growth of the organism and provide increased access to the bloodstream. (Three fourths of the cases of DGI occur in women; susceptibility is increased if the primary mucosal infection occurs during menstruation or pregnancy.) [8, 9]

Defects in the host's immune defenses are also involved in the pathophysiology, with certain patients more likely to develop bacteremia. Specifically, patients with deficiency in terminal complement components are less able to combat infection, as complement plays an important role in the killing of neisserial organisms. As many as 13% of patients with DGI have a complement deficiency.

A study of 22 patients with DGI revealed that total serum complement activity was greater than 25% below the normal mean. Other causes of immunocompromise (eg, HIV, SLE) also predispose to dissemination of infection.

In addition, certain strains of gonorrhea causing asymptomatic genital infections are seen in association with DGI. [10]

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