Understanding chlamydia Q&A: A doctor answers questions about the troubling disease.

August 16, 1998

After Wednesday's report that chlamydia has reached epidemic status among teens, people may have questions about the sexually transmitted disease. The report, stemming from a three-year study by the Johns Hopkins University of 3,200 Baltimore youths aged 12 to 19, called for twice-a-year testing for sexually active adolescents.

Here, some common questions about chlamydia are answered by Dr. Helene Gayle, director of the National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other experts:

What causes chlamydia?

The bacterium chlamydia trachomatis can be spread by an infected man or woman, whether or not that person has noticeable symptoms. It is spread only through direct, person-to-person sexual contact. Two uninfected people with no other sex partners cannot contract chlamydia.

What are the symptoms?

Often, none. Up to 80 percent of women and 50 percent of men have no symptoms, so they unknowingly spread it. Men sometimes experience swelling of the testicles, or discharge from the penis. Women could have discharge or burning upon urination.

Can chlamydia be prevented?

Yes, latex condoms can prevent its spread.

What's the test and treatment?

Testing and treatment have been made easier, faster and less-expensive in just the past few years. To be tested, you must ask your doctor; he or she will not do it routinely or as part of your physical. The test has been improved: Growing culture for 48 hours is no longer required. A swab taken from a woman's cervix or a urine sample is run through a test that looks for the DNA fragments of the bacterium.

Treatment no longer requires a one-week dose of antibiotics; one single dose is now available.

What are its consequences?

Left untreated, chlamydia infections in women lead to long-term and potentially life-threatening consequences such as infertility, constant pain, tubal pregnancy and HIV exposure.

Some 40 percent of women will develop pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can be debilitating in pain and require repeated hospitalization or repeated outpatient visits.

Just one PID episode of pelvic infection can leave a woman infertile because of Fallopian-tube scarring. Of those contacting PID from chlamydia, 20 percent will become infertile. Another 9 percent will suffer a tubal pregnancy, which is the leading cause of first-trimester pregnancy-related deaths among American women. And 18 percent of the women will suffer constant pelvic pain, which can lead some to undergo hysterectomies.

In addition, women infected with chlamydia have a 3-to-5 fold increased risk of acquiring HIV, if exposed to the AIDS virus.

Men exposed to chlamydia may develop urethritis - pain while urinating. If the infection reaches the testicles, it can produce scar tissue that blocks sperm ducts, causing sterility.

If pregnant women are infected with chlamydia, can it affect the fetus?

Yes. Between 35 percent to 50 percent of infants born to infected mothers develop a relatively minor eye inflammation, while 25 percent may develop pneumonia.

Is there a number to call for more information?

The CDC has a STD hot line: 800-227-8922; Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Cox News Service

Pub Date: 8/16/98

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