What Is Chlamydia?
Chlamydia is considered to be the most common sexually transmitted disease in the U.S. The disease is more commonly found in women than in men. It is an infection mainly caused by the bacteria known as Chlamydia trachomatis. Chlamydia is similar to gonorrhea, having a similar pattern and symptoms. It is also similar in its pattern of transmission.
Most people who get infected with chlamydia, both men and women, do not show any symptoms, because they are not aware of the infection. It can cause permanent damage to the fallopian tubes in the woman’s body and may lead to future infertility, as well as increase the risk of ectopic pregnancy. An infection caused by chlamydia may also increase a woman's risk during pregnancy and in preterm labor, and it can even cause low weight in newborn babies.
Chlamydia is a disease that is usually spread through sexual contact with someone who has the infection. The main gateways of this disease are through vaginal and anal sex, although it can also be spread through oral sex. It can spread by touching your eyes if your hands are contaminated with infected fluid. An infected mother can also pass the infection to her baby. Chlamydia is not spread through kissing, hugging, holding hands, coughing, sneezing, or sitting on the toilet, nor is it spread through sharing food or drinks with an infected person.
Chlamydia is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections that affect women, especially in the U.S. Every year, about 1.2 million women are affected by this disease.
If women are infected with chlamydia during pregnancy, it increases their risk of having preterm labor and tends to deliver newborns with low birth weights. Another strain of chlamydia that causes lymphogranuloma venereum, a lymphatic infection, is also on the rise.
Chlamydia produces almost no symptoms in women, so it is very difficult to know whether a woman has been infected or not. Men who acquire chlamydia usually develop an infection in the urethra, which causes a urinary tract infection, burning pain during urination, blood in the urine, or frequent urination. In women, the infection usually damages the cervix first and may lead to infertility if left untreated.
If the disease is not treated, it can spread to the fallopian tubes and ovaries. Using condoms is one preventive measure to reduce or stop the spread of infection. Having sex without a condom will only lead to a higher risk of exposure. The commonly used antibiotics for chlamydia are azithromycin and doxycycline. It is important to be aware of this disease and work toward its prevention rather than treatment. As the saying goes, "Prevention is better than a cure."
Causes of Chlamydia
The infection caused by Chlamydia trachomatis usually affects the cervix, urethra, vagina, and rectum of an infected person. Sometimes, the bacteria can be found in the throat. The infection is spread through any type of sexual contact, be it vaginal, anal, or oral.
The disease is mostly seen in young, sexually active people. If a pregnant woman has chlamydia, she can pass the infection to her baby at the time of birth, as the baby passes through the vaginal canal. Chlamydia can cause eye damage and pneumonia in newborn babies, too. Even if a person has already been cured of the infection, there is still a possibility that the disease can occur again.
Signs and Symptoms of Chlamydia
Chlamydia is commonly referred as a "silent infection" due to its asymptomatic characteristic. However, the infection can cause permanent damage to the reproductive tract, so it is very important to recognize the disease early on and treat it.
In the U.K., around 1 in 20 women are infected with chlamydia. Moreover, the infection is commonly seen in women aged 15–25 years old.
When symptoms begin to appear, they are similar to gonorrhea. Symptoms can gradually appear, as it may take up to several weeks for the initial infection to develop. The major symptoms of chlamydia in women are vaginal discharge and abdominal pain, while penile discharge and testicular pain are usually experienced by men.
If the symptoms are not diagnosed early, the infection can spread to the pelvic organs, which can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease. The symptoms of PID include pelvic pain, fever, cramping, and abdominal pain, as well as pain during sexual intercourse.
It is said that only around 30% of women with chlamydia notice any symptoms.
Chlamydia Trachomatis Bacteria
Lymphogranuloma venereum is also a type of STD that has become more common in the developing world. It may cause a different strain of the chlamydia bacteria.
The Chlamydia trachomatis bacteria can be present in various parts of the body, such as the urethra, cervix, vagina, and rectum of the person who has the infection. The bacteria can even be found in the throat. The type of sexual contact (i.e., vaginal, anal, or oral) can easily spread the infection among people rapidly.
According to a medical survey among people of different ages, the disease is mainly found among young adults who are sexually active. Most young men and women are at a high risk for chlamydia.
An infected mother, too, can easily spread the infection to her baby during the time of birth, when the baby comes out through the vaginal canal. The common complications of chlamydia include damage to the eyes and pneumonia in newborns.
The infection can recur even after being successfully treated the first time. It can come back again and again depending on the person and their activities.
Most women with a chlamydia infection do not show any signs or symptoms, which makes it difficult to treat the person immediately. The infection is referred to as a “silent” infection because it works silently. Chances are high that the infection will cause permanent damage to the reproductive tract, so it is necessary to attack it aggressively. It is very important to know about the infection and to cure it before it spreads. The main damage caused by chlamydia is an infection of the cervix with inflammation (cervicitis) in women.
Some of the symptoms that commonly occur with a chlamydia infection start working over the body. A person can get symptoms similar to gonorrhea. Common symptoms are acute pain in the abdomen and vaginal discharge, along with an infection in the urethra, which can cause pain or a burning sensation while urinating, combined with blood in the urine.
Changes in Vaginal Discharge
Chlamydia discharge in women is often caused by a uterine cervix infection. The color of the discharge can be yellow or milky white. Some women also experience a burning sensation while urinating. The infection can affect the urethra as well and cause a urinary tract infection, or UTI.
A UTI causes painful burning sensations while urinating, along with sudden, desperate urges to urinate. If the infection is not cured, it can spread from the cervix to the fallopian tubes, resulting in bleeding and pain during sex, spotting between periods, fever, and lower back pain.
Chlamydia and Infertility in Women
Chlamydia can damage the hairs that line the fallopian tubes. These tiny hairs are known as "cilia" and help transport a fertilized egg to the womb.
Although chlamydia can cause scarring in women, there are cases where women are still capable of conceiving. If a woman has chlamydia and gets pregnant, she is at a high risk of an ectopic pregnancy, wherein the fertilized egg is implanted in the fallopian tube rather than the womb or uterus. An ectopic pregnancy can be very dangerous for the mother. For this reason, pregnant women with chlamydia should be diagnosed early to prevent possible complications. To prevent acquiring this sexually transmitted infection, get tested regularly and use condoms every time you engage in sexual intercourse.
In cases where the chlamydia infection is not treated, about 30% of people develop an infection in the pelvic organs, which leads to pelvic inflammatory disease. The common symptoms of pelvic inflammatory disease are continuous pelvic pain and pain while having sexual intercourse. Sometimes, a person will have a high fever, cramps, and abdominal pain. Pelvic inflammatory disease causes scarring and damages the reproductive organs severely if not treated immediately, resulting in infertility.
In men, too, the infection can cause health problems and symptoms such as penile discharge and a burning sensation while urinating, along with swelling in the area around the testicles.
Chlamydia and Pelvic Inflammatory Disease
Pelvic inflammatory disease is a bacterial infection of the womb or fallopian tubes. Pelvic inflammatory disease is usually caused by chlamydia and other sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea. The symptoms of PID are abnormal vaginal bleeding (heavy period), bleeding between periods, or bleeding after sexual intercourse. PID also causes pain during sex. Abnormal vaginal discharge, fever, and lower back pain are the main symptoms of PID.
Some women may start to feel ill in the early stage of infection, while it may take two to three weeks for others to experience any symptoms. PID in the U.K. is quite common, with 1 in 50 women infected annually. Women with PID are usually treated with a two-week antibiotic course. If the case is extreme and other complications arise, the patient needs to be hospitalized for further care and treatment.
Inflammation of the cervix is called cervicitis. It can result in pain during sexual intercourse, burning sensations during urination, and an urgent need to urinate. If cervicitis is not promptly treated, it can result in cervical cysts, backaches, deep pelvic pains, and vaginal discharge.
Another complication, called bartholinitis, develops if chlamydia is left untreated. Bartholinitis is the blockage and infection of the Bartholin’s glands, which are mucus-secreting glands of the vagina. If these glands are blocked due to an infection, it can result in the formation of cysts or abscesses. These abscesses are red in color and can also cause fever.
Laboratory testing is usually performed to diagnose chlamydia.
The recommended test for the identification of chlamydia is the nucleic acid amplification test, or NAAT. This test identifies the DNA of C. trachomatis and is considered a more specific and sensitive test for chlamydia. The only samples needed for the NAAT are vaginal swabs or urine from men and women. It is an easier and more convenient method compared to pelvic examinations in women.
Other tests for chlamydia can also be carried out, but they are less sensitive when it comes to detecting the infection. They include:
- Bacterial culture
- Direct fluorescent antibody (DFA) stain
- DNA probe
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all sexually active women younger than 25 should be regularly tested every year for chlamydia. Moreover, pregnant women, women who are 25 years and older, and women with multiple sexual partners should also be regularly tested for chlamydia.
The Importance of Early Treatment
Getting early treatment for chlamydia is very important to make sure the infection does not spread or cause permanent damage to other parts of the body. If women are diagnosed with chlamydia, it is necessary to inform their partners so that they can also be treated. Chlamydia test kits are available and can be ordered online and delivered to your home or office for convenience.
Since chlamydia is caused by bacteria, it can be treated using antibiotic therapy. Treatment can last for seven days or more. Women who are infected with chlamydia should avoid having sexual intercourse while on treatment to prevent the infection from being transmitted to other people. The commonly used antibiotics for chlamydia are azithromycin and doxycycline. Pregnant women can also take antibiotics such as azithromycin, amoxicillin, and erythromycin ethylsuccinate.
In other routine diagnostic purposes, rapid tests are conducted to identify the bacterial genetic material which causes the infection. The other test conducted is the nucleic acid amplification test. The specimen for a NAAT is successfully obtained at the time of gynecologic examination while swabbing the cervix. Diagnostic tests are conducted on either the urine samples or self-collected vaginal swabs.
Chlamydia can be cured effectively with antibiotic therapy. Antibiotics are given for a period of six to seven days. During the course of medication, women should avoid having sex for one week. The antibiotics azithromycin and doxycycline work effectively on the disease. The antibiotic treatment is also useful and highly effective for pregnant women suffering from chlamydia.
If chlamydia is not treated right away, it can lead to serious consequences, including permanent damage to the reproductive organs, which includes infertility problems and an increased risk of ectopic pregnancy. Chlamydia in pregnant women can cause pneumonia and low birth weight in newborn babies. Untreated chlamydia can also lead to other sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV.
Most of the time, people who are infected with chlamydia show no symptoms. That is why the early detection and treatment of chlamydia is somewhat difficult.
Male condoms can be used to effectively reduce or stop the spread of chlamydia. People who have sex without a condom are at great risk of acquiring not only chlamydia, but also other sexually transmitted infections.
Sexual partners must be limited to avoid going back and forth with the infection. One should limit their sexual contact to a single uninfected partner. Sexual contact should be temporarily avoided if a person is infected with chlamydia. It is highly recommended to consult a doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment of the condition.
If there are any genital symptoms, such as vaginal or penile discharge, a burning sensation while urinating, or a sore rash in the genitals, immediate action should be taken.
Doctors recommend that any person who is having sex with more than one partner should get regularly tested, whether or not they have symptoms.