Chlamydia and gonorrhea are curable sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Chlamydia is caused by a bacterium called Chlamydia trachomatis . Gonorrhea is caused by a bacterium called Neisseria gonorrhoeae . According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than four million people, primarily sexually active adolescents and young adults, become infected with chlamydia each year. In 2000, 358,995 cases of gonorrhea were reported to the CDC, approximately 75% of which occurred in adolescents and young adults between the ages of 15 to 29 years.

In women, untreated chlamydial and gonococcal infections may lead to serious health conditions, such as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) , tubal infertility (damage to the fallopian tubes that may interfere with a woman’s ability to conceive), chronic pelvic pain, ectopic (tubal) pregnancy , and infertility. Scientists also believe that infection with chlamydia and gonorrhea may increase susceptibility to HIV transmission in both men and women.

In an effort to find ways to reduce these complication rates, a group of researchers conducted a study to determine the prevalence of chlamydial and gonococcal infections among young adults living in the U.S. Their results were published in the May 12, 2004 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association. The researchers found that more than four percent of sexually active adolescents and young adults in the U.S. are infected with chlamydia, many are infected with gonorrhea, and some are infected with both.

About the Study

The researchers conducted in-home interviews with 14,322 young adults from across the country, all of whom were between the ages of 18 and 26. Using urine specimens collected from 12,548 (87.6%) of the participants, the researchers measured the prevalence of both chlamydial and gonococcal infections in these young adults.

The Findings

The researchers found that the overall prevalence of chlamydia in young adults was 4.19%, with women being more likely to be infected than men (4.74% vs 3.67%, respectively). The overall prevalence of gonorrhea was 0.43%, significantly lower than that of chlamydia. The prevalence of infection with both chlamydia and gonorrhea concurrently was 0.030%.

How Does This Affect You?

The study concluded that the overall prevalence of chlamydial infections among adolescents and young adults in the U.S. was high, and the overall prevalence of gonococcal infections, while not high, was concerning.

Currently, annual screenings for chlamydial and gonococcal infections are recommended for all sexually active women between the ages of 20 and 25 years even if symptoms are not present. However, the high prevalence rate found in this study suggests that these screening approaches, which focus on clinical testing, may not be sufficient. According to the researchers conducting this study, a reassessment of the current screening policies is needed.

In the meantime, if you are a sexually active adolescent or an adult having sex outside of a long-standing monogamous relationship, be sure to speak with your health care provider about being screened for chlamydia (and possibly gonorrhea). And, to minimize your risk of infection, limit the number of sexual partners you have, know all of them well, and always be sure to use condoms.