STD Awareness: Is Chlamydia Bad?

chlamydiaPerhaps your sexual partner has informed you that they have been diagnosed with chlamydia, and you need to get tested, too. Maybe you’ve been notified by the health department that you might have been exposed to chlamydia. And it’s possible that you barely know what chlamydia even is, let alone how much you should be worried about it.

Chlamydia is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) out there, especially among young people. It can be spread by oral, vaginal, and anal sex, particularly when condoms or dental dams were not used correctly or at all. It is often a “silent” infection, meaning that most people with chlamydia don’t experience symptoms — you can’t assume you don’t have it because you feel fine, and you can’t assume your partner doesn’t have it because they look fine. If you’re sexually active, the best way to protect yourself is to know your partner’s STD status and to practice safer sex.

Chlamydia increases risk for HIV, leads to fertility and pregnancy problems, and might increase cancer risk.

The good news about chlamydia is that it’s easy to cure — but first, you need to know you have it! And that’s why it’s important for sexually active people to receive regular STD screening. Left untreated, chlamydia can increase risk of acquiring HIV, can hurt fertility in both males and females, can be harmful during pregnancy, and might even increase risk for a certain type of cancer. So why let it wreak havoc on your body when you could just get tested and take a quick round of antibiotics?

To find out just how seriously you should take chlamydia, let’s answer a few common questions about it.

Can Chlamydia Increase HIV Risk?

Chlamydia does not cause HIV. Chlamydia is caused by a type of bacteria, while HIV is a virus that causes a fatal disease called AIDS. However, many STDs, including chlamydia, can increase risk for an HIV infection, meaning that someone with an untreated chlamydia infection is more likely to be infected with HIV if exposed to the virus.

Even when you don’t notice any symptoms, chlamydia can cause inflammation, which recruits immune cells to fight the infection. As (bad) luck would have it, immune cells are what HIV targets — and with more immune cells at the scene, there are more cells for HIV to invade, increasing its chance of successfully infecting a new host. This scenario perfectly encapsulates why it’s important for sexually active people to be screened for STDs regularly, and for them to protect themselves with condoms!

Does Chlamydia Affect Fertility?

With quick diagnosis and treatment, you can stop a chlamydia infection in its tracks with the appropriate antibiotics. But, left untreated, it can damage fertility in both male and female reproductive tracts. In males, chlamydia is a leading cause of epididymitis, which is the inflammation of the tube that stores sperm before ejaculation. Severe cases of epididymitis can cause enough scarring to block the sperm’s progress through this tube.

Chlamydia can also cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in the female reproductive tract. PID causes tissue damage to the uterus, cervix, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and other reproductive organs, which can lead to infertility, ectopic pregnancy, and chronic pain. The formation of scar tissue in the fallopian tubes can block the path that eggs would otherwise follow from the ovary to the uterus. About 10 to 15 percent of the time, untreated chlamydia in females will progress to PID, possibly causing permanent damage to the fallopian tubes and uterus. Each time someone gets PID, their risk of infertility is doubled.

Will Chlamydia Cause a Miscarriage? Can Chlamydia Cause Other Pregnancy Problems?

So far, there haven’t been many studies investigating the connection between chlamydia infection during pregnancy and miscarriage risk, but the few that have been done don’t seem to provide evidence that chlamydia can lead to miscarriage. However, chlamydia can cause other problems during pregnancy, such as increased risk for preterm labor (when the baby is born too early) and low birth weight, and can be passed to the baby during birth. In newborns, a chlamydia infection can cause eye infections, respiratory infections, and pneumonia.

Can Chlamydia Cause Cancer?

When it comes to STDs and cancer, the big bad is human papillomavirus, or HPV, which can cause cervical cancer (as well as other types of cancer). However, emerging evidence suggests that chlamydia might be a co-factor in cervical cancer risk, perhaps by making cells more vulnerable to HPV infection, or by helping HPV infections to last longer. Some studies have calculated that the odds of developing cervical cancer are roughly doubled when an HPV-positive individual has a history of chlamydia. A recent study followed a large cohort of women with persistent HPV infections for up to 19 years and found that those who reported more than one prior chlamydia infection were more than twice as likely to develop a type of serious “pre-cancer” called cervical intraepithelial neoplasia grade 3, as well as full-fledged cervical cancer.

It’s thought that chlamydia might interfere with the immune response against HPV, or cause chronic inflammation and damage to tissues, leaving cervical cells more vulnerable to HPV infection. However, it’s also possible that someone with multiple chlamydia infections is more susceptible to developing infections in general, in which case the relationship between chlamydia and cervical cancer might just be a coincidence. For now, scientists aren’t sure if chlamydia actually makes someone more vulnerable to cervical cancer.

The best way for sexually active people to protect themselves from HIV is to practice safer sex and know their partner’s status. Likewise, the HPV vaccine offers the best protection against cervical cancer and other HPV-associated cancers, and works best when given before the recipient becomes sexually active. You can be tested and treated for STDs, be vaccinated against HPV, or drop by to pick up condoms at any Planned Parenthood health center.

Click here to check out other installments of our monthly STD Awareness series!