Chlamydia: Overview

Millions of men and women are infected with chlamydia each year. If you are having unprotected sex, you are at risk for contracting chlamydia as well as all other sexually transmitted diseases. The following overview should help you better understand the disease.

Transmission of chlamydia bacteria

Chlamydia is a bacterial infection spread through sexual contact. It is a sexually transmitted disease, or STD, caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis, which is found in vaginal fluids and semen. The bacteria can be passed through vaginal, anal or oral sex. The disease affects both women and men; however, reported cases for women are much higher than those for men.

In women, chlamydia is a type of vaginitis, a disorder that causes swelling or infection of the vagina and vulva (the area surrounding the vaginal opening). The bacterium that causes chlamydia often infects the cells of the cervix; it can also spread to the uterus (womb), fallopian tubes and ovaries.

In men, the bacteria affect the urethra (the tube that carries urine from the bladder to outside the body), but they can also spread to the epididymis (the tube that carries the sperm from the testicles).

Women or men who have anal sex can become infected in the rectum (the last several inches of the large intestine, which ends at the anus). Although it is less common, chlamydia can also infect the throats of women and men who have oral sex with an infected partner.

Currently, there is no evidence that chlamydia is sexually transmitted between women who have sex with other women. However, studies have not been conducted on a large enough scale to provide reliable information.

A woman who becomes infected with chlamydia during pregnancy can pass the disease to her baby during vaginal childbirth if the baby is exposed to the mother's infected cervix.

Estimates for the exact number of chlamydia cases vary. In 2003, 877,478 chlamydia infections were reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), although since many people are not aware of their infections and are not tested, health officials estimate that the actual number of infections is much higher. Statistics vary among individual health organizations, but most estimates fall within the range of 2.8 to 4 million infections per year.

Potential risks with chlamydia infection

Left untreated, chlamydia can result in a variety of medical complications with both short- and long-term consequences. Possible complications in women include:

  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), an infection of the uterus, fallopian tubes and other reproductive organs
  • Infertility, the inability to get pregnant after a year of continuous attempts
  • Ectopic or tubal pregnancy, a pregnancy in which a fertilized egg starts developing outside the uterus
  • Chronic pelvic pain
  • Reiter's syndrome, a form of arthritis (inflammation of the joints) that can be accompanied by skin lesions (abnormal tissue) and inflammation of the eye and urethra (the tube that carries urine from the bladder to the outside of the body)
  • HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) - women with chlamydia are more likely to get HIV if exposed to the virus

In pregnant women, chlamydia infections may lead to premature delivery. Babies born to infected mothers can get conjunctivitis (an infection of the eye also known as pink eye) as well as pneumonia.

If you are sexually active, using a condom every time you have vaginal, oral or anal sex can help reduce your risk of contracting the disease.

Because chlamydia often produces no symptoms, it is easy to be a carrier of the disease and not know it. And if you have unprotected sex, you may unknowingly spread the disease to your sexual partners. That is why sexually active women, especially women 25 and younger, should be tested regularly. Your doctor can screen for chlamydia during a routine gynecological exam.

Fortunately, chlamydia can be easily treated and cured with antibiotics. Be sure to take the full course of antibiotics to ensure that you've eliminated the bacteria. Also, inform your current and past sexual partners so that they may be tested and treated for chlamydia if they've contracted it too. Because you can contract chlamydia again, you should abstain from sex until you have completed treatment. This will help keep you and your partner from reinfecting each other.

While it may be embarrassing to find out - and tell others - that you have a sexually transmitted disease, treating and curing chlamydia is easy and can prevent you from developing more serious health problems.

Last updated 24 March 2012

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