One of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) is chlamydia that is caused by the bacteria chlamydia trachomatis. The symptoms of chlamydia are usually mild or absent and because of this, many infected persons remain untreated and have potential to spread the disease to others. But serious complications that cause irreversible damage can occur “silently” before a person ever recognizes a problem.
Men with untreated chlamydia infections can become infertile, have chronic pelvic pain, and can become more easily infected with HIV/AIDS. In women, the infection can spread in the uterus or fallopian tubes and cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). This can cause permanent damage to the fallopian tubes, uterus, and surrounding tissues. The damage can lead to chronic pelvic pain, infertility, and potentially fatal ectopic pregnancy (pregnancy outside the uterus). Women infected with chlamydia are up to five times more likely to become infected with HIV, if exposed.
In pregnant women, there is some evidence that untreated chlamydial infections can lead to premature delivery. Babies who are born to infected mothers can get chlamydia infections in their eyes and respiratory tracts. Chlamydia is a leading cause of early infant pneumonia and conjunctivitis (pink eye) in newborns.
Women, in general, are less likely to get sufficient symptoms for them to seek medical care than men. About 75% of women and 50% of men with Chlamydia infections have no symptoms. With that in mind, women are more likely to suffer complications and lasting damage than men.
Chlamydia in men can cause urethritis, an inflammation of the urethra (the opening of the penis), with or without discharge. The discharge in chlamydia tends to be subtle in presentation than gonorrhea – this means that the discharge from chlamydia may look white, cloudy and watery compared to the discharge from gonorrhea which is more thick, yellowish pus. Other symptoms in men may be pain during sex or burning sensation during urination. Men might also have burning and itching around the opening of the penis.
Complications among men are rare. Infection sometimes spreads to the epididymis (the tube that carries sperm from the testis), causing pain, fever, and, rarely, sterility. Moreover, genital chlamydial infection can rarely cause arthritis that can be accompanied by skin lesions and inflammation of the eye and urethra (Reiter's syndrome).
Chlamydia can be transmitted during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Chlamydia can also be passed from an infected mother to her baby during vaginal childbirth.
Any sexually active person can be infected with chlamydia. The greater the number of sex partners, the greater the risk of infection. Because the cervix (opening to the uterus) of teenage girls and young women is not fully matured and is probably more susceptible to infection, they are at particularly high risk for infection if sexually active. Since chlamydia can be transmitted by oral or anal sex, men who have sex with men are also at risk for chlamydial infection.
Chlamydia can be easily treated and cured with antibiotics. Consult a doctor and avoid self-medication. All sex partners should also be evaluated, tested, and treated. Persons with chlamydia should abstain from sexual intercourse until they and their sex partners have completed treatment, otherwise re-infection is possible.
Women whose sex partners have not been appropriately treated are at high risk for re-infection. Having multiple infections increases a woman's risk of serious reproductive health complications, including infertility. Retesting should be encouraged for women three to four months after treatment. This is especially true if a woman does not know if her sex partner received treatment.
The surest way to avoid transmission of STDs is to abstain from sexual contact, or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected. Latex male condoms, when used consistently and correctly, can reduce the risk of transmission of chlamydia.