Last updated: September 16, 2019
Kate Killoran M.D.
Obstetrics & Gynecology
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Chlamydia is well known and yet many with the disease go untreated due to a lack of symptoms. Check out everything you need to know about this silent disease.
Three million people are infected by a silent disease each year. A disease where half of the men and three quarters of the women will produce no symptoms and yet prolonged infection can cause organ damage and even a loss of fertility.
We are talking about chlamydia.
Learn everything a doctor wants you to know about this common sexually transmitted disease.
What is Chlamydia?
Chlamydia is caused by a bacteria called chlamydia trachomatis. This bacteria can be present in sperm or vaginal fluid. Gential chlamydia can affect the cervix in women and both the urethra and anus in men and women.
While many associate chlamydia with genitals, it can also be found on other areas of the body. Check out everything you need to know about oral chlamydia.
Chlamydia lives to live in the mucus membranes of the human body. It usually inhabits the gential mucous membranes of the eyes and the throat.
Chlamydia is similar to a virus in that the bacteria grows in a host cell. There is still much to be learned about chlamydia trachomatis. Over time evidence has shown that the bacteria is able to manipulate its host cell in order to get the nutrients it needs.
History of Chlamydia
Much about this well known and yet often undiscovered infection is revealed in its name. The bacteria that causes chlamydia, chlamydia trachomatis, was first discovered in 1907 by Stanislaus von Prowazek in Berlin.
Chlamydia comes from the Greek word chlamys which means cloak and trachomatis means rough or harsh. These two words perfectly sum up the actions of this disease.
Cloak is well suited as chlamydia is often without symptoms. This is likely why it has become the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. In fact, 50% of men and 75% of women do not experience any symptoms.
Rough or harsh can be a nod to the fact that the bacteria has a rough outer membrane that makes it resistant to environmental factors. It could also refer to the painful symptoms that can be experienced such as painful urination, genitals and intercourse.
Related: Do I have Gonorrhea?
How is Chlamydia Spread?
You do not need to have sex in order to contract chlamydia. In addition to vaginal, anal and oral sex, you can also get chlamydia by:
- Sharing sex toys without washing or covering with a new condom each time they are used
- Coming into contact with infected semen or vaginal fluid or if these fluids come into contact with your eye.
- If your genitals come into contact with infected genitals-this can spread the bacteria with or without ejaculation, penetration or orgasm.
- A pregnant mother infected with chlamydia can spread the STI to their unborn baby during a vaginal birth.
Myths About Chlamydia
Chlamydia is spread by kissing-Chlamydia is not spread by kissing. It is spread by sexual contact. It could be spread by oral sex.
Chlamydia is spread through the use of public toilets–Chlamydia cannot be spread through sharing personal items such as toilet seats or towels
It is unclear if chlamydia can be spread through female genitals rubbing together
Symptoms of Chlamydia
The symptoms of chlamydia will vary between men and women and will also depend on where the bacteria is on the body. Signs of chlamydia usually manifest within 1 to 3 weeks of infection but in some cases it may take longer.
While the symptoms of chlamydia are often mild and go unnoticed, women are less likely to experience symptoms than men.
Early Symptoms of Genital Chlamydia
Early symptoms of chlamydia are often mild and may therefore go unnoticed. Men and women are likely to experience symptoms such as:
- Frequent need to urinate
- Pain during urination
- Low grade fever
If left untreated, the symptoms may become more severe and painful. The symptoms may develop into:
- Abdominal pain
- Lower back pain
- Irregular bleeding between menstrual periods or spotting
- Pain during sex
- Abnormal discharge from the vagina or penis
- Rarely, men may experience swelling of the testicles
- Anal swelling
Symptoms of Oral Chlamydia
Chlamydia can also be spread to the mucous membranes in the throat through oral sex. When chlamydia is present in the throat, it can cause a sore throat. Yet chlamydia is more than a sore throat, it is considered a mouth infection.
Although often asymptomatic, oral chlamydia can appear to mimic the symptoms of tonsillitis. White spots may appear at the back of the throat along with pain when swallowing.
Symptoms of Chlamydial Conjunctivitis
Chlamydial Conjunctivitis is an eye infection than can be spread if vaginal fluids or semen come into contact with the outer membrane of the eyelid.
This infection can be spread to newborn babies from infected mothers during a vaginal delivery.
Symptoms of Chlamydial Conjunctivitis can include:
- Red, itchy, swollen or scratchy eyes
- Sensitivity to light
- Pus or watery discharge
Usually there is no change in vision and no pain.
Symptoms in a newborn usually appear about 5 to 7 days after birth and can include swollen eyelids, redness, and watery discharge.
What Does Chlamydia Look Like?
Chlamydia often has no symptoms, so it is important to know the signs to look for when they are present.
Men may experience a yellow pus-like discharge from their penis. Women may also experience the same discharge from the vagina. Women may also notice bleeding between their menstrual periods.
The penis may be itchy or inflamed and the testicles may swell. The anus can also become tender to the touch, bleed or produce a similar discharge.
Women can also experience pain in the anus, bleeding or discharge.
Who is at Risk?
According to the CDC, the rate of infection is highest in sexually active women 25 and under. It is important to get yearly screening, especially if you have a new sexual partner. It is important to get screened during pregnancy as chlamydia can be passed onto your unborn child.
Those who are considered high risk include:
- Men and women who have multiple partners
- Men and women who have sex without a condom
- Men who have sex with men
- Those who currently have another sexually transmitted infection
- Those with an infected partner
How is Chlamydia Diagnosed?
Chlamydia is diagnosed through two simple tests. The first is through testing a sample of your urine to determine if the chlamydia trachomatis bacteria is present.
Secondly, your doctor may get a swab sample to further test for the bacteria. For women, a swab will be taken of the cervix and can often be done during a routine pap smear. In most cases, only the urine test is performed.
For men a swab will be inserted in the tip of the penis. If it is believed that the anus is affected, it may be swabbed.
How is Chlamydia Treated?
Chlamydia is treated through oral antibiotics. It is recommended that any person that you have had sexual contact with in the last 60 days also be treated. This is an important step in preventing a further spread of the infection.
Once you have had chlamydia you can be reinfected. So your partner also needs to get antibiotics in order to prevent the bacteria from spreading.
You are still able to spread chlamydia while on antibiotics. It is advised to avoid sexual contact for seven days after you complete a full round of antibiotics. Even if you are no longer experiencing any symptoms. It is recommended to get retested three months after you complete your treatment.
Importance of Screening
Chlamydia is the most common notifiable disease. While screening efforts have expanded over the past 20 years, many at risk women are still not being tested.
This may be a reflection of a lack of awareness among healthcare providers or a limitation the resources needed to support these screenings.
Health Risks of Not Treating Chlamydia in Women
Failure to treat chlamydia can result in serious complications for fertility. If left untreated, chlamydia bacteria can travel up the reproductive tract through the vagina to the uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries. This can further spread the infection and cause inflammation. This infection can cause damage and scarring in the reproductive organs.
This scar tissue may prevent the successful implantation of a fertilized egg by blocking the fallopian tubes. It may also cause an ectopic pregnancy. An ectopic pregnancy is when a fertilized egg implants outside of the uterus. Scar tissue in the fallopian tubes can cause the tube to become stuck, which can be life threatening.
If left untreated, chlamydia can cause chronic pelvic pain. It is also a symptom of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
As many as 500 000 PID cases in the United States are due to chlamydia infection. Of these cases, 100 000 women become infertile.
Chlamydia also increases the risk of contracting HIV. Women with chlamydia are up to 5 times more likely to contract HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS.
In rare cases, chlamydia can cause Reiter’s syndrome, a disease characterized by arthritis, skin lesions, and inflammation of the urethra and eyes.
Health Risks of Not Treating Chlamydia in Men
In men Chlamydia can cause an infection of the urethra and the tube that collects and stores sperm from the testicles. In some rare cases it can cause infertility.
The infection can also be passed from a pregnant mother to their unborn baby. Due to this, pregnant women are routinely screened for chlamydia.
How to Prevent Chlamydia
- Use condoms every time when having sex with a new partner or a partner who could potentially be infected.
- Limit your number of sexual partners. Those with multiple partners are at higher risk
- Use dental dams for oral sex
- Avoid sexual contact with partners who have not been tested
- Get tested regularly and make sure your partners do the same
- Avoid douching
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About Kate Killoran M.D.
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