The World Health Organisation estimates that there are 131 million new cases of chlamydial infection each year. Compared to other sexually transmitted diseases (STD), chlamydia is the most common STD in both men and women. Its prevalence can be explained by the fact that chlamydial infection in many people produces no signs or symptoms. As such, many people remain untreated. This increases the likelihood of transmission and allows the infection to continue unchecked, leading to complications. Although the disease is common, this does not mean that it can be taken lightly, because untreated chlamydial infection can significantly affect a person’s quality of life, threaten their reproductive health, and even lead to life-threatening consequences.
What causes a chlamydial infection, and what happens during infection?
Chlamydial infection is caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis. C. trachomatis is classified as an obligate intracellular parasite, like viruses. The bacterium can only replicate by invading the cells of the infected person and siphoning nutrients from the cells. This is because the genome of C. trachomatis is highly compact and lacks many genes for processes important for life. Hence, they can only survive by feeding off another organism, i.e. the infected human host. Chlamydial infection often shows no signs or symptoms. This is particularly so in women, where inflammation of the cervix (cervicitis) is a common development. This takes place out of sight, and is therefore difficult to detect. As such, the infection often goes untreated, and leads to the development of pelvic inflammatory disease.
Pelvic inflammatory disease affects the reproductive system, involving the infection of the uterus, Fallopian tubes and/or ovaries. Signs and symptoms of pelvic inflammatory disease are: a burning sensation when urinating (dysuria), pain during sex (dyspareunia), and irregular menstruation. If left untreated, pelvic inflammatory disease can cause scarring within the reproductive organs. This can lead to serious repercussions such as infertility, ectopic pregnancy (where an embryo attaches outside of the uterus), and even cancer.
Infected mothers can also transmit the infection to their child via vaginal childbirth. This can result in conjunctivitis, leading to blindness. Stillbirth (a baby born dead) and premature birth are also possible outcomes of chlamydial infection in pregnant women.
Chlamydial infection in men manifests as pain while urinating and/or discharge (white, cloudy, or watery) from the penis. Untreated chlamydial infection in men can progress to epididymitis (inflammation of the testes), which can lead to sterility.
C. trachomatis can also cause another disease called lymphogranuloma venereum (also known as “climatic bubo”), which is an infection of the lymph nodes and lymphatic system. Both the lymph nodes and lymphatic system are important components of the body’s immune system. Only certain variants of C. trachomatis can cause this disease. Lymphogranuloma venereum is more common in men than women, and being co-infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the main risk factor for developing the disease.
Lymphogranuloma venereum develops in two stages: primary and secondary. The primary stage involves the formation of painless genital ulcers at the site of contact. This easily goes undetected in women as the ulcers are commonly on the vaginal wall, and are thus not generally visible. The ulcer heals in a few days, but this does not indicate that the infection is cured. The disease can progress to the secondary stage within a variable amount of time, from a few days to a month.
In the secondary stage, lymph node swelling (also called bubo) is a common observation. The areas of swelling depend on the site of sexual intercourse, and often involve the groin (inguinal swelling), but can also affect the rectum, leading to inflammation (proctocolitis). Later stages of the secondary stage result in necrosis (cell death) and formation of abscesses (collections of pus within tissues). Scarring (fibrosis) can also occur.
How can I get tested and treated for a chlamydial infection?
Chlamydial infection is treated with antibiotics, and the infection normally clears up within one to two weeks. However, any permanent damage (such as scarring) already done by the infection cannot be reversed with treatment, so it is a good idea to get yourself tested immediately if you suspect you may have caught the infection. Early detection and diagnosis is essential to prevent disease progression and further transmission. You should take note that having a previous chlamydial infection does not protect you from being infected with it again. As such, it is recommended that your partner(s) are also treated for chlamydial infection to protect yourself from re-infection. Pregnant women must also remain vigilant for possible chlamydial infection as it has repercussions for their unborn child as well.
Do not let the shame and stigma associated with chlamydial infection stop you from getting yourself tested and treated. Untreated chlamydial infection carries with it serious consequences that can impact your health and your ability to have children in the future. Detecting chlamydial infection is discreet, quick, and easy using our Chlamydia STD Rapid Test Kit. The kit requires only a swab to obtain epithelial cells from the urethra (for men) or vaginal wall (for women), and gives you with a reliable and accurate result in 15 minutes. It is safe and easy to use.