What is it?
Chlamydia, which is caused by the microorganism Chlamydia Trachomatis is the most common curable sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the United States. Chlamydia is a major cause of non-gonococcal urethritis (NGU), cervicitis, bacterial vaginitis, and pelvic inflammatory disease(PID) . Chlamydia infections may have very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, so they are often overlooked. However, left untreated these infections can lead to serious damage to the reproductive organs, particularly in women.
What causes it?
Chlamydia infections are usually transmitted during contact with the genital, mouth, or rectal area of an infected person. Chlamydia is not transmitted through casual contact (toilet seats, hot tubs, saunas, or swimming pools). A person can be infected, not have symptoms, and transmit chlamydia without knowing it.
What are the symptoms of chlamydia infection?
Up to 80 percent of women and at least 25 percent of men with uncomplicated chlamydia infection have no symptoms or signs of infection. If symptoms do occur, they typically appear within one week to a month after exposure to an infected person and may include the following:
- pain or burning during urination
- frequent urination
- pain and swelling in the testicles
- low-grade fever
- burning and itching around the opening of the penis
- watery or milky discharge from the penis
- irregular vaginal bleeding
- burning with urination
- itching and burning in the genital area
- vaginal discharge
- lower abdominal pain often accompanied by nausea and fever
When should I see my health care provider?
Early diagnosis and treatment of chlamydia infections are critical. See your health care provider immediately if you experience any of the symptoms listed above or if you suspect that you have another STD. You should also have a screening test for chlamydia at the start of a new relationship or if you are currently sexually active and your partner has been diagnosed and treated for chlamydia.
How is chlamydia diagnosed?
A diagnosis of chlamydia is made with one of several types of laboratory tests. Usually secretions are obtained from the potentially infected site (cervix, urethra, or rectum) and sent to a laboratory where the organism is identified. How is chlamydia treated?
Chlamydial infections are one of the most treatable STDs, especially when detected early. The cure rate is greater than 95%. The infection is usually treated with antibiotics. It is important to be treated, as untreated chlamydia can have long term negative consequences. It is also important to take the full course of antibiotics, even if symptoms disappear, and to return for a follow-up examination. All exposed sexual partners should be referred for evaluation and treatment.
Immunity does not develop after being infected; therefore, an individual can be infected with chlamydia more than once. To prevent re-infection, infected people should refrain from genital-genital contact and intercourse until they and their partner(s) have completed treatment. While condoms provide some protection, their possibility of breaking suggests that it is best to refrain from intercourse until treatment is completed.
What are the risks if chlamydia is not treated?
Chlamydia infections can create serious health problems if left untreated. In women a chlamydial infection may begin at the cervix and spread upward to the uterus, the fallopian tubes, or to the ovaries. This may result in pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) , a serious infection which can scar and block fallopian tubes, causing sterility, infertility, or ectopic (tubal) pregnancy . In men it is the leading cause of non-gonococcal urethritis (NGU) which on occasion causes epididymitis , an inflammation of the epididymis (located adjacent to the testicle). Epididymitis can lead to sterility .
A baby who is exposed to C. trachomatis in the birth canal during delivery may develop conjunctivitis (eye infection) or pneumonia . Symptoms of conjunctivitis, which include discharge and swollen eyelids, usually develop within the first 10 days of life. Symptoms of pneumonia, including a progressively worsening cough and congestion, most often develop within three to six weeks of birth. Both conditions can be treated successfully with antibiotics. Because of these risks to the newborn, many doctors recommend routine testing of all pregnant women for chlamydial infection.
C. trachomatis can cause proctitis (inflamed rectum) and conjunctivitis (inflammation of the lining of the eye). The bacteria also have been found in the throat as a result of oral sexual contact with an infected partner. In tropical climates, a particular strain of C. trachomatis causes an STD called lymphogranuloma venereum (LGV), which is characterized by prominent swelling and inflammation of the lymph nodes in the groin. Complications may follow if LGV is not treated; this infection is very rare in the United States.
How can it be prevented?
Because chlamydial infection often occurs without symptoms, people who are infected may unknowingly infect their sex partners. Many doctors recommend that all persons who have more than one sex partner, especially women under 25 years of age, be tested for chlamydial infection regularly, even in the absence of symptoms. Using condoms or diaphragms during sexual intercourse may help reduce the transmission of chlamydia.
The surest way to avoid getting chlamydia and other sexually transmitted diseases is by abstaining from sex or being in a mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner. Having multiple partners increases your risk of getting chlamydia and other sexually transmitted diseases.
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Adapted from the National Institutes of Health, June 1998 Lisa Barber-Murphy, M.Ed., CHES.
Last reviewed June 1998 by
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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