It’s often referred to as the ‘silent infection’ and in the US alone there are at least 4 million reported cases of this sexually transmissible infection every year. We’re talking about Chlamydia, one of the most common STI’s seen today.
Chlamydia Symptoms – Often Not Present
The symptoms of Chlamydia and Gonorrheae, another common STI, are almost identical and generally the only way to determine which one a person has is by testing. Chlamydia is common largely because the vast majority of people who contract it do not realise they have it due to not having any Chlamydia symptoms. In fact 70% of infected men do not experience any of the typical symptoms of chlamydia in men and 90% of infected women do not have any of the usual symptoms of chlamydia in women.
With STI’s this generally spells disaster because infected people who continue to be sexually active, unaware they have any infections, rapidly pass them on. As you can imagine, this becomes a particularly serious issue if they have a number of partners.
Whilst anyone who is sexually active can get Chlamydia regardless of age, it is more common in young adults under 25. Those with new sexual partners, several sexual partners, or who have had Chlamydia previously then had sex with someone who has it but hasn’t been treated, are at greater risk of contracting it.
It’s vitally important that people diagnosed with a Chlamydia infection inform their partners so that they can also be tested and treated. Regardless of whether or not they’ve experienced any Chlamydia symptoms.
Primary Symptoms Of Chlamydia In Women
It’s called the ‘silent infection’ for good reason. Many symptoms of Chlamydia in women go unnoticed and undetected because they’re either so minimal as to be insignificant or they simply don’t present. However, if Chlamydia symptoms are present, they generally include:
- An abnormal discharge
- Painful sex
- Unusual bleeding or spotting either after sex or between periods
- Burning sensation during urination
- Pain in the lower abdomen and pelvic area
Chlamydia in women infects the cervix and from there it can spread to the other reproductive organs (uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries) causing inflammation that may lead to scarring and eventual fertility problems. Untreated or ignored symptoms of Chlamydia in women and repeat infections are one of the leading causes of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
Primary Symptoms Of Chlamydia In Men
As with women, many of the more common symptoms of Chlamydia in men also go undetected, even if they’re present to start with. Symptoms of Chlamydia in men will present as:
- An abnormal discharge
- Pain during urination
- One or both testicles swollen and sore.
- Scrotal swelling
In men Chlamydia infects the urethra and may spread to the tubes that transport semen from the testicles (epididymis). When this happens, it may cause infertility.
In both men and women the early stages of Chlamydia are easily treated with antibiotics. However, if symptoms of Chlamydia are ignored or simply aren’t present and the infection reaches the stage of causing infertility, treatment options become a lot more difficult and indeed may never reverse the infertility.
What Causes Chlamydia Infection
A bacterium from the genus Chlamydia called Chlamydia trachomatis is responsible for Chlamydia infection. Variants of Chlamydia trachomatis can cause:
- Trachoma – an eye infection that can cause blindness if not treated (variants Ab, B, Ba, or C)
- Urethritis (inflammation in the urethra), cervicitis (inflammation in the cervix), salpingitis (inflammation in the fallopian tubes), PID, ectopic pregnancy, neonatal pneumonia and neonatal conjunctivitis (variants D – K)
- Lymphogranuloma venereum (LGV) – an infection in the lymph nodes and lymphatic system (variants L1, L2 and L3)
Consequences Of Untreated Chlamydia Infection
When not treated Chlamydia infection can have some pretty grave consequences. Along with gonorrhea, it’s one of the primary causes of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in women. PID is an infection that affects the reproductive organs, notably the lining of the uterus (endometrium), ovaries, fallopian tubes and cervix. It affects around 12% of sexually active women at some time during their lives, especially those in the 20 – 24 age group.
Most ectopic pregnancies are located in the fallopian tubes. If not detected early, the fertilized egg may continue to grow and rupture the fallopian tube causing life threatening internal bleeding. For this reason a ruptured fallopian tube is considered to be a medical emergency.
Untreated Chlamydia infection in men can also cause infertility if it spreads from the urethra to the epididymis.
Fortunately when Chlamydia, and PID, are detected early they’re fairly easy to treat with antibiotics and most people fully recover. The key though is testing and early detection if experiencing any symptoms of Chlamydia.
When Symptoms Of Chlamydia Go Undetected
Although the Chlamydia trachomatis bacterium is an STI, the fact that so many infected people do not exhibit any Chlamydia symptoms and therefore do not seek treatment, means that those who contract a Chlamydia infection can end up with complications and seemingly unrelated illnesses.
- Reactive arthritis or spondyloarthritis is an arthritic-like disorder that manifests itself as seemingly unrelated joint pain and swollen joints following an infection in the genitals, urinary tract or intestines.
- Chlamydia trachomatis can cause conjunctivitis in both babies and adults. This is a condition where the lining of the eyes and eyelids becomes inflamed.
- Chlamydia trachomatis can also cause pneumonia, an inflammatory condition of the lungs.
- Babies born to infected mothers are particularly at risk of picking up neonatal pneumonia and neonatal conjunctivitis as they pass through the infected cervix.
- Uveitis, a condition in which the inner area of the eye becomes inflamed, can also occur if the eyes are exposed to genital fluids from someone with a Chlamydia infection.
Chlamydia Trachomatis – Related Infections
Trachoma or granular conjunctivitis is a highly infectious disease caused by a variant of the Chlamydia trachomatis bacterium in which the inner surface of the eyelids becomes roughened. This can damage the cornea and if not treated, may eventually cause blindness. Repeated, and untreated, episodes of trachoma infection may eventually cause the eyelids to turn inwards and cause permanent blindness. Trachoma is caused by coming into contact with facial fluids from an infected person and is prevalent in children throughout some under developed countries where personal hygiene is poor.
Lymphogranuloma venereum or LGV is caused when yet another variant of the Chlamydia trachomatis bacterium enters the body via mucous membranes or breaks in the skin. It then gets into the lymphatic system and infects lymph nodes as it passes through them.
Detection And Treatment
A lack of Chlamydia symptoms doesn’t mean the infection is any less serious than in someone who does develop symptoms of Chlamydia. Nor does contracting Chlamydia build up immunity so it’s very easy to become reinfected.
The most common test for people who don’t have any Chlamydia symptoms is a simple urine test that can be done at a doctor’s surgery. For those who do present with Chlamydia symptoms, remembering that the symptoms of Chlamydia and Gonorrheae are very similar, swabs of urethral or cervical fluids are taken. Prescribed treatments for Chlamydia are antibiotics.