Gonorrhea Might Be Able to Spread Through Kissing, According to a New Study
Despite a current consensus that gonorrhea is contracted after having sex with an infected person, swapping saliva might be all it takes.
In 2017, the CDC reported that cases of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis were at a record high in the U.S. Last year, "super gonorrhea" became a reality when a man contracted the disease and it proved to be resistant to two antibiotics central to gonorrhea treatment guidelines. Now, new study results suggest that it might be possible to get oral gonorrhea from kissing—big yikes. (Related: "Super Gonorrhea" Is a Thing That's Spreading)
The study, published in Sexually Transmitted Infections, was intended to fill a gap in research on whether kissing affects your risk of getting oral gonorrhea. Over 3,000 gay or bisexual men in Australia answered surveys about their sex lives, indicating how many partners they had that they only kiss, how many they kiss and have sex with, and how many they have sex with but don't kiss. They were also tested for oral, anal, and urethral gonorrhea, and 6.2 percent tested positive for oral gonorrhea, according to the study's findings. (Related: These 4 New STIs Need to Be On Your Sexual-Health Radar)
So here's where the researchers found something unexpected: A slightly higher percentage of men who reported that they only have kissing-only partners tested positive for oral gonorrhea than those who said they were only having sex–3.8 percent and 3.2 percent, respectively. What's more, the percentage of oral gonorrhea-positive men who said they're only having sex with their partners (and not kissing them) was lower than the percentage of oral gonorrhea-positive men in the group as a whole–3 percent versus 6 percent.
In other words, the study found an association between having a high number of kissing-only partners and "an increased risk of having throat gonorrhea, irrespective of whether sex occurred with the kissing," Eric Chow, the lead author of the study, told The Washington Post. "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," he added.
Of course, these percentages don't prove for certain that gonorrhea can be spread through kissing. After all, the researchers only included gay and bisexual men in the study, meaning we can't necessarily draw any conclusions for a broader population of people.
In general, health authorities look at gonorrhea as an infection that's spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex, not through kissing. But the thing is, gonorrhea can be cultured (grown and preserved in a lab) from saliva, which suggests that it might be spreadable through swapping saliva, the authors noted in the study.
Oral gonorrhea symptoms are rare, according to Planned Parenthood, and when they do show up, it's usually just a sore throat. Since symptoms often don't show up, though, people who avoid getting regular STI testing can have gonorrhea for a long time without knowing anything's off. (Related: Why You’re More Likely to Get an STI During Your Period)
On the bright side, without additional research, this study doesn't prove that we've been all wrong about how gonorrhea is contracted. And FWIW, while kissing might be riskier than everyone thought, it also has health benefits.