As the prevalence of STDs increases, it is becoming more and more imperative that sexually active men and women know how to protect themselves from infection. It is particularly important to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of Chlamydia, the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. Unfortunately, chlamydia can be a very difficult disease to diagnose and treat, because its symptoms are so mild. Often known as the "silent disease", chlamydia can cause a number of serious health complications if left untreated.
What is Chlamydia?
Chlamydia is an STD caused by the bacteria, Chlamydia trachomatis. The most prevalent STD in the United States, chlamydia is thought to affect almost three million Americans every year. The STD can infect the rectum, vagina, or penis, and may also cause infections of the throat and eyes. Symptoms of the disease tend to be mild or nonexistent, however, complications can be serious if treatment is not received. Effective treatment to help manage the infection is available, and typically includes some form of antibiotic.
How do You Get Chlamydia?
Chlamydia is contracted through sexual activity with an infected partner. The chlamydia bacteria are found in the semen and vaginal fluid of those infected with the illness. This fluid can be exchanged during:
- vaginal intercourse
- oral intercourse
- anal intercourse
Pregnant women who are infected with chlamydia can also pass the disease along to their child during labor and delivery.
Who’s At Risk for Chlamydia?
Anyone who is sexually active is at some risk for getting chlamydia. Your risk for contracting the disease increases if you:
- engage in unprotected sex
- have numerous sex partners
- are a young woman
- do not get tested regularly for STDs
- already have syphilis, gonorrhea, or HIV
What are the Symptoms of Chlamydia?
Unfortunately, the symptoms of chlamydia tend to be very mild or even nonexistent. In fact, up to 75% of infected women and up to 50% of infected men show no symptoms of the disease. If symptoms do manifest, they tend to occur within one to three weeks of infection. Symptoms of chlamydia in men include:
- discharge from the tip of the penis
- burning during urination
- itching around the tip of the penis
Symptoms of chlamydia in women include:
- abnormal vaginal discharge
- pain during intercourse
- burning during urination
Complications Associated with Chlamydia
Unfortunately, if left untreated chlamydia can cause serious health complications in both men and women. Health risks are less common in men, but can include infection of the epididymis, a tightly coiled tube that lies behind the testes. This infection can lead to sterility, though this is rare.
Women are much more likely to experience complications associated with chlamydia infection. If the infection spreads to the reproductive organs, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) can occur. In fact, more than 40% of women with chlamydia develop PID. PID can cause scarring of the uterus and fallopian tubes, which can interfere with fertilization and pregnancy. It can also increase a woman’s risk of experiencing an ectopic pregnancy.
Furthermore, chlamydia can be very dangerous during pregnancy. It can be passed along to your child during delivery, causing serious eye infections and pneumonia. Chlamydia may also increase your chance of having a preterm delivery.
Finally, being infected with chlaymdia increases your risk of a gonorrhea infection. In fact, it is so common for these two STDs to occur together, that most health care providers will test for both even if you are just displaying the symptoms of one STD.
Treatment for chlamydia is very straightforward and effective. Men and women are typically treated with a course of antibiotics, usually tetracycline, azithromycin, or erythromycin. Pregnant women are also given antibiotics to prevent transmitting the disease onto their children. In order to prevent reinfection at a later date, it is important that all of your sexual partners receive treatment for the illness as well.
You can reduce your risk of contracting chlamydia by following a few simple steps:
- Always use a condom when participating in sexual activity.
- Limit your number of sex partners.
- Have annual STD testing performed and encourage all of your sexual partners to get tested too.
- Get treatment immediately if you notice any symptoms of chlamydia, and notify all of your sexual partners. This will help prevent chlamydia transmission.
Learn more about Chlamydia and about how to treat Chlamydia in our STD forum.