How Dangerous is Chlamydia?

If you’ve been diagnosed or exposed to chlamydia, you may be wondering, just how dangerous is it?

Will it keep coming back, like herpes? Can it cause brain damage, like syphilis? Is there any chance you’ll die, like with AIDS?

Most women, about 75% of those infected, have no symptoms and therefore don’t even know they’ve been infected with chlamydia. If symptoms do occur they may be confused with a urinary tract infection or vaginal yeast infection. Burning on urination or vaginal discharge are among the more common symptoms, but when the infection reaches higher into the cervix or fallopian tubes, abdominal pain may occur, along with fever, nausea, back pain, pain with intercourse, or abnormal menstrual bleeding. It’s important to see your physician if you experience these symptoms.

Because many women have no warning symptoms, and because the infection is sometimes mistaken for something else, damage may occur even before a women knows she’s infected. Up to 40% of untreated women eventually develop pelvic inflammatory disease, which may cause chronic pelvic pain, infertility, or blockage of the fallopian tubes.

Usually the damage is not life-threatening. However, if the fallopian tubes become sufficiently scarred, an ectopic pregnancy (tubal pregnancy) may occur. If this isn’t detected in time, the tube may burst, causing internal bleeding, which may be fatal.

Another scary fact: if you already have chlamydia and are then exposed to HIV, you’re 4-5 times as likely to become infected with HIV than if you don’t have chlamydia. STDs run in pairs. A person infected with one sexually transmitted disease is at high risk of having contracted a second as well.

Premature birth is a possible complication for pregnant women infected with chlamydia. Infected mothers may pass the disease to their babies, who may suffer from infection in their eyes or lungs, even pneumonia.

As for men, up to half of infected men don’t have symptoms and therefore can pass the disease on without even knowing it. Those who do have symptoms usually exhibit burning on urination, and so may confuse this STD with a urinary tract infection. Occasionally the infection spreads up through the urethra and bladder to the epididymis, causing pain behind the testicles, sometimes fever, and occasionally sterility.

If you have any of the above symptoms see your doctor promptly before irreversible damage sets in. If you don’t have symptoms but worry you may have been exposed, see your doctor as well. Any sexually active person (anyone having sex) should be tested yearly for chlamydia, especially those 25 years of age and younger (except for those in a long-term totally monogamous relationship who have never been at risk for contracting chlamydia). All pregnant women should be tested as well.

Antibiotic treatment is effective but may not be able to reverse scarring from a prolonged infection, so don’t put off seeing a doctor for this potentially serious infection.

Copyright 2010 Cynthia J. Koelker, M.D.