Reviewed By: Dr. Kurt Kloss, MD
Last Reviewed Date: Dec 07, 2018
Last Modified Date: Dec 07, 2018
Published Date: Aug 23, 2017
Do you Have Chlamydia? Get the Facts – It’s Important
Chlamydia is a bacterial infection that is spread through sexual contact. It is the most frequently reported bacterial sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with approximately 2.86 million infections occurring every year. While the disease is harmful to both sexes, it is of particular concern in women, since an undetected and untreated infection can have serious long-term effects on female reproductive health. Given the very common nature of this STD and its dangers, it is important for all sexually active individuals know and watch for the symptoms of chlamydia, and regular STD testing is essential.
Chlamydia: The Basics
Chlamydia is a highly contagious condition that is caused by infection with Chlamydia trachomatis bacteria. It is transmitted through sexual contact with an infected person, many of whom exhibit no obvious symptoms of chlamydia. It can also be transmitted by an infected mother to her unborn child. In women, the bacteria typically infect the cervix first, then spread to the urethra, and, less commonly, to the anus. Untreated chlamydia infection can then spread upwards into the uterus, fallopian tubes and bladder, and in rare cases, to other organs in the body, particularly to the liver. In newborns born to infected mothers, infection can affect the eyes, causing conjunctivitis, and the lungs, resulting in pneumonia.
Potential Chlamydia Complications in Women
Chlamydia infections that have been allowed to progress without treatment can cause a number of serious, long-term complications in women. Most common is pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which occurs as chlamydia infection spreads through the reproductive system. PID can cause permanent damage to the fallopian tubes, uterus and other reproductive tissues. That damage can cause infertility and increases a woman's risk of ectopic pregnancy, a complication that is often life-threatening.
Some individuals with chlamydia-induced PID also develop inflammation in tissues surrounding the liver; a condition called chlamydial perihepatitis or Fitz-Hugh-Curtis Syndrome. This can cause upper abdominal pain and reduced liver function.
Pregnant women with untreated chlamydia are at higher risk of pre-term delivery. Untreated Chlamydia also increases the risk of contracting HIV. In fact, according to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, women who have chlamydia are five times more likely to contract HIV from an infected partner. Rarely, untreated chlamydia can result in a condition called Reiter Syndrome, which includes joint swelling and pain, generally in the knees, ankles and feet, and inflammation in the eyes and urinary tract.
Symptoms of Chlamydia in Women
Chlamydia infection, for approximately three-quarters of all women who contract the disease, comes with no symptoms at all in its early stages. In women that do experience symptoms of chlamydia, they commonly include:
- Abnormal vaginal discharge, sometimes accompanied by a foul odor
- Pain or burning during urination
- Vaginal swelling, itching or irritation
- Bleeding between menstrual periods
- Pain during sexual intercourse or bleeding afterwards
- Pain in the lower abdomen, sometimes accompanied by nausea
- Anal swelling, itching, bleeding or discharge
Rarely, chlamydia infection can occur in the throat in women who have oral sex with an infected partner. Symptoms of chlamydia infection in the throat can include a persistent sore throat and flu-like symptoms, such as fever, nausea and body aches.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Chlamydia is, in the vast majority of cases, easily cured through antibiotic therapy when it is detected in its early stages, before complications have become an issue. However, early symptoms of chlamydia in women, when present at all, are typically very subtle, often going unnoticed by affected women and their physicians. For this reason, many cases remain undetected for some time, and most are diagnosed through STD screening tests.
The CDC recommends that all sexually active individuals be screened for chlamydia and other common STDs at least once a year but many young people do not follow this advice because they don’t think they are at risk. In fact, everyone should be tested and women who are at higher risk, such as those age 25 or under, or women with more than one sex partner might benefit from more frequent testing. Testing is also recommended for all women during the first trimester of pregnancy.
Another common reason that chlamydia infections frequently go undiagnosed and untreated is embarrassment. Women may notice possible symptoms of chlamydia or suspect exposure, but hesitate to bring those concerns to the attention of their health care provider due to the stigma that can associated with STD infection in the minds of many.
Fortunately, there are other options for patients who find themselves in this position. Women who are concerned that they may be suffering the symptoms of chlamydia, but aren't comfortable approaching their family doctors for testing, can order chlamydia screening tests directly through Health Testing Centers. A private medical testing service, Health Testing Centers offers a selection of the same high-quality medical tests used by physicians to diagnose STDs. Patients can order tests quickly and discreetly online, have testing done at one of over 1400 convenient LabCorp locations, and have results delivered to them directly.
Some of the media in this article come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification numbers #3795/Image by Dr. Lourdes Fraw and Jim Pledger and 2295/Image by Dr. Wiesner, and Dr. Kaufman.