Chlamydia is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a bacterium, Chlamydia trachomatis. More cases of STIs are caused by Chlamydia trachomatis than by any other bacterial pathogen, making C. trachomatis infections an enormous public health problem throughout the world.
The bacterium can infect both men and women and can cause serious and permanent damage (pelvic inflammatory disease) to a woman’s reproductive organs.
As a sexually transmitted infection, Chlamydia is often difficult to detect, particularly in males, who are the carriers but do not suffer any signs and symptoms of infection.
Chlamydia, like all STIs, is transmitted through sexual intercourse (vaginal, anal and oral) with someone who is a carrier, or who is infected. Chlamydia is carried on the glans (or head) of an infected man’s penis and not in his ejaculate. Therefore, unprotected sex places women at high risk for infection. People who have had Chlamydia and have been treated can get infected again if they have sex with an infected person.
Incidentally, Chlamydia is most common among young people, and it is estimated that one in 15 sexually active females aged 14-19 years has chlamydia globally.
The Silent Plague
Chlamydia is known as a ‘silent’ infection because most infected people have no symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they may not appear until several weeks after exposure. Even when it causes no symptoms, Chlamydia can damage a woman’s reproductive organs.
In women, the bacteria first infect the cervix (structure that connects the vagina or birth canal to the uterus or womb) and/or the urethra (urine canal). Some infected women have an abnormal vaginal discharge or a burning sensation when urinating. Untreated infections can spread upward to the uterus and Fallopian tubes (tubes that carry fertilised eggs from the ovaries to the uterus), causing pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
PID can go unnoticed, or can cause symptoms such as abdominal and pelvic pain. Even if PID causes no symptoms to begin with, it can lead to infertility and other health complications such as ectopic pregnancy (when an embryo implants somewhere other than the uterus, such as the Fallopian tubes) and chronic abdominal pain. An ectopic pregnancy is extremely painful can be deadly if it is not detected and treated.
Untreated Chlamydia has also been associated with pre-term delivery or miscarriage in the early stages of pregnancy. Chlamydia can also be spread from an infected woman to her baby during childbirth, leading to infection of the eyes and, if left untreated, pneumonia in an infant.
Few infected men have discharge from their penis, or a burning sensation when urinating. Pain and swelling in one or both testicles (known as epididymitis) may also occur, but is less common. Chlamydia can also infect the rectum in men and women, either through receptive anal sex, or possibly through spreading from the cervix and vagina. While these infections often cause no symptoms, they can cause rectal pain, discharge, and/or bleeding (known as proctitis).
Untreated chlamydia may increase a person’s chances of acquiring or transmitting HIV.
Contamination of the eyes from the genital area of an infected person leads to an eye infection called trachoma. Worldwide, the most important disease caused by C. trachomatis is trachoma, which affects the inner upper eyelid and cornea and is one of the most common infectious causes of blindness.
The disease starts as an inflammatory infection of the eyelid and progresses to the cornea leading to blindness due to corneal opacity (cloudy film over the cornea). In some parts of the ‘developing world’, over 90% of the population is infected.
Preventing And Treating Chlamydia Infection
The use of male or female condoms during sexual intercourse is effective in reducing risk of infection with Chlamydia and other STIs. Reducing the number of sexual partners is another way to reduce risk. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), being married is a risk factor for HIV infection as well as infection with other sexually transmitted diseases for women.
Women who themselves may be monogamous but whose partners are not monogamous must use condoms and get tested annually for Chlamydia infection. Screening and treatment of chlamydia during pregnancy is the best way to prevent loss of the pregnancy or infection of the infant. All pregnant women should be screened for chlamydia at their first prenatal visit and treated if found to be infected.
Any sexually active person can be infected with chlamydia. Anyone with genital symptoms such as discharge, burning during urination, unusual sores, or rash should avoid having sex until they are able to see a health care provider about their symptoms and get tested for Chlamydia. If a woman has a partner who has recently had an STI, it is best to get tested even she and her partner have been using condoms.
Individuals with chlamydia should abstain from having sex for seven days after single dose antibiotic treatment, or until completion of a seven-day course of antibiotics, to prevent spreading the infection to partners.
Repeat infection with chlamydia is common. Individuals who are infected should inform their partners so that they also get treated. This will prevent re infection and transmission to other partners. Having multiple chlamydial infections increases a woman’s risk of serious reproductive health complications, including pelvic inflammatory disease and ectopic pregnancy.
Chlamydia infection and PID are two of the most common causes of infertility in women. The fact that Chlamydia infection is often free of pain and symptoms means that many women are infected and do not know it. Many may suffer from chronic abdominal pain and infertility and not know what the cause of their discomfort is.
Frequent testing is the only way of identifying infection early enough to get treatment before any damage to the reproductive system takes place. If you have never heard of Chlamydia but are sexually active, it is advisable to discuss this infection with your doctor on your next visit and find out if they do any screening for it.
Finally, share this information with friends and family member who may also not know of this infection. Chlamydia can be easily treated and cured with antibiotics.
The main photograph used in the article is derived from www.123rf.com while that of the ectopic pregnancy is from www.simple.wikipedia.org. Further information for this article was derived from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).