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Women and Chlamydia

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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

You might not be intimately familiar with the name, but chlamydia is actually the most commonly reported bacterial sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the U.S. Each year, about 1.2 million infections are reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But because chlamydia often has no symptoms, at least as many people could be living with the disease without even realizing it.

To help young women protect themselves against this highly preventable STD, WebMD asked Sami Gottlieb, MD, MSPH, medical officer in the CDC's Division of STD Prevention, to walk readers through the basics of Chlamydia. She shares why this STD is so risky for women, and offers important advice on how to avoid getting infected.

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What exactly is chlamydia?

Chlamydia is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis. It's passed from person to person through sex, and it can cause a wide variety of complications if it's not treated.

What kinds of health problems can chlamydia cause?

The main complication that can result from untreated chlamydia infections is infertility in women, and that's the thing that we're most worried about. Usually in women, chlamydia infects the cervix, which is the opening to the uterus. But if it's not treated, it can travel up into the upper genital tract—the uterus, the fallopian tubes, the ovaries. And sometimes it causes a condition called pelvic inflammatory disease, or PID. That can be a painful condition where there's lower abdominal pain, pain during sex, and inflammation of the pelvic organs. If it gets up into the upper genital tract, it can cause scarring in the fallopian tubes, and that scarring can lead to the egg not being able to be fertilized properly or not being able to travel down the fallopian tube.

Another complication that can come from the fallopian tubes being scarred or damaged from a chlamydia infection is called ectopic pregnancy, where the egg can actually get fertilized outside the uterus (for example, in the fallopian tube), and that can be life threatening. In pregnant women who have chlamydia or acquire chlamydia while they're pregnant, chlamydia can be passed to the infant during vaginal childbirth. In a newborn infant, chlamydia can cause eye infections (conjunctivitis) and it can also cause pneumonia, which is why we really encourage all pregnant women to be tested for chlamydia and treated if they're positive.

Usually men don't suffer any long-term consequences of a chlamydia infection. In a very small portion of men, the infection can travel into the upper genital tract and cause an infection of the epididymis [the tube where sperm collect]. And that can cause pain and swelling. That's pretty uncommon, and it can be treated and it doesn't result in infertility in men.

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