Chlamydia is the most common bacterial sexually transmitted disease (STD), affecting three to four million Americans annually. While it is most common among teenagers and young adults, anybody can get it: half of all sexually active people between 18 and 30 may be infected. The bad news about it is threefold: it’s usually symptomless until very advanced; it’s the leading cause of pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility in women, while in men, the ailment can lead to disease of the urinary tract; and it is easily transmitted sexually, through contact with infected membranes.
Chlamydia can infect the eye, throat, and rectum, as well as the reproductive tract. Since symptoms seldom occur, testing is the only way to diagnose it with certainty. The good news is that chlamydia is also easy to detect and treat. Unlike herpes or AIDS (both viral in origin), chlamydia can be cured with antibiotics.
Symptoms of Chlamydia
- Most of those infected have only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all.
- If a woman has any symptom of chlamydia, it is likely to be a vaginal discharge. If the infection gets into the urinary tract, there is likely to be pain, burning and/or a frequent urge to urinate. Other symptoms in women include pain during sexual intercourse, bleeding after sexual intercourse or irregular menstrual bleeding, mild abdominal pain and eye irritation (if infected).
- Symptoms most likely to occur in men are painful urination, discharge from the penis, swelling and tenderness in the testicles and eye irritation (if infected).
What Causes Chlamydia?
The Chlamydia bacterium comes in three recognized species. One version, Chlamydia trachomatis, has strains that cause the STD as well as eye and lung infections in newborns. Other strains can cause psittacosis (a respiratory disease transmitted by birds), and pneumonia. Recent research suggests that one strain of Chlamydia can infect the interior of the arteries, possibly becoming a factor in hardening of the arteries and, thus, heart disease.
But the type of Chlamydia that infects the reproductive tract is most common among teenagers and young adults, though anybody who is sexually active can get it. Like other sexually transmitted diseases, it is spread by contact with infected mucous membranes, typically through vaginal or anal sex. The infection is similar to gonorrhea and sometimes hard to distinguish from it—and it often occurs simultaneously with gonorrhea. (The presence of one STD is always a risk factor for another, including HIV infection.)
Infection can also be passed from a mother to her newborn during birth, leading to eye infection or pneumonia in the child.
What If You Do Nothing?
Chlamydia should be treated immediately, otherwise it may become chronic and lead to extensive inflammation and scarring of the genital tract in both men and women. In women, untreated infections can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which may result in ectopic pregnancy and infertility, even in women who never develop clinical PID.
Home Remedies for Chlamydia
As with other bacterial STDs, such as syphilis and gonorrhea, there are no home remedies for chlamydia. It requires diagnosis by a physician and treatment with antibiotic medications. Abstain from sexual activity until tests show no more infection.
- If you have sex, practice safer sex. Abstinence, obviously, prevents chlamydia. So does remaining monogamous with a healthy monogamous partner. But the true key to prevention is knowledge. Any sexually active person not in a long-term, monogamous relationship, or any young person about to become sexually active, should understand the importance of a male sex partner using latex condoms consistently and correctly. Oral contraceptives do not protect against STDs and may even increase the risk for chlamydia.
- Test regularly. There are quick and reliable tests for chlamydia. Contrary to what many women believe, however, a Pap test does not detect any kind of STD. If your health-care provider does not mention the subject, ask to be tested. Early diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics can cure the disease and prevent complications like infertility or the birth of infected infants. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends routine screening for all sexually active female adolescents, women with new or multiple sex partners (and particularly those who don’t use condoms consistently), and women with a history of STDs. Pregnant women who fall into one of these high-risk categories should also be tested. If you are in a risk group, ask your healthcare provider to test you. Anybody diagnosed with chlamydia should inform his or her sexual partners, who can then be treated as well.
- Talk to your kids. If you are the parent of adolescents or young adults, talk to them. Unwillingness of parents to discuss sex, and especially STDs such as chlamydia, is one reason for the current epidemic. Ignorance is never protective.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
Contact your physician if you develop any symptoms or if symptoms persist for more than a week after undergoing treatment. Even if you have no symptoms but fall into one of the high-risk categories mentioned above, you should arrange to be tested.
Also contact your doctor if your sexual partner has developed the infection, whether or not you have symptoms.
What Your Doctor Will Do
After a careful physical examination, your doctor will take a specimen from the cervix or urethra. For women, a culture from the cervical cells has been the most reliable test, but new testing methods that deliver results more rapidly are becoming increasingly popular alternatives. If the results are positive, a course of antibiotic medication will be prescribed.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media