Chlamydia is the most important bacterial sexually transmitted infection (STI) of which college students need to be aware. That is because Chlamydia infections are common amongst both men and women, because there are excellent tests available to diagnosis Chlamydia, because Chlamydia is easily treated and cured after diagnosis is made, and because undiagnosed Chlamydia infections can cause significant harm to both men and women.
Chlamydia infects about 5% of college students at any given time. If a man is infected with Chlamydia, he may develop penile discharge and/or discomfort with urination. The symptoms may be subtle, or they may be obvious. Importantly, however, a large percentage of men infected with Chlamydia, perhaps even the majority, have no symptoms at all to alert the fellow that something is amiss. If a man is going to develop symptoms of a Chlamydia infection, they usually will develop within 7-10 days after exposure.
Women may experience a change in vaginal discharge and/or discomfort with urination, but women have symptoms even less frequently than men do. Further, undiagnosed Chlamydia infection in women causes more dire consequences than it does in men. Genital Chlamydia infection in women can cause pelvic infections or infertility. For those reasons, it behooves a woman, even more than it does a man, to seek medical care if she has any concern whether she has been exposed to Chlamydia. In the starkest terms, that means whether she’s had unprotected intercourse at any time in the past.
Testing for Chlamydia is easy, inexpensive, and accurate. Men need only provide a urine specimen for testing. No longer are urethral swabs used! Women can receive accurate testing by having a small cotton swab placed briefly either onto her cervix, or simply into her vagina. Women can also be tested via urine specimen, but that method is slightly less accurate.
If a person is diagnosed with Chlamydia, the infection can be cured with a short course of an inexpensive antibiotic. Realize, however, that being infected with Chlamydia does not confer immunity. A person can be infected with Chlamydia more than once. Also, unless both persons in a sexual couple are treated at the same time, the infection can be “ping-ponged” back and forth between the individuals.
Gonorrhea infections share some characteristics with Chlamydia infections. The symptoms that men and women may develop are the same between the two infections, although gonorrhea infections are somewhat less likely to be asymptomatic. Gonorrhea is also significantly less common than is Chlamydia. Testing for gonorrhea is the same in both men and women as is the case for Chlamydia. (In fact, when I or my colleagues test for Chlamydia, we always test for gonorrhea at the same time using the same swab or urine specimen.) As is the case with Chlamydia infections, gonorrhea can be treated and cured with antibiotics. As with Chlamydia, a person can be infected with gonorrhea more than once.
At the turn of the last century, there was a saying amongst physicians that, “To know syphilis in all its manifestations is to know all aspect of medicine.” That was the case because syphilis was so common and affected infected persons in so many ways that it really did encompass much of medical knowledge at the time.
Thankfully, syphilis is much less common today than in times past. In some recent years there has been not a single case of syphilis identified in the state of Wyoming. However, there were 9 reported cases in Wyoming in 2009, so it’s an illness of which both physicians and patients need to be aware.
Syphilis infections are insidious. They often begin with a painless, slowly healing sore (a “chancre”) on the genitalia. Left untreated, the chancre will heal, but the infection has not been resolved. It will return in various manifestations throughout the subsequent months and years. Syphilis left untreated causes many possible significant health problems.
There are a couple of different tests for syphilis. Suffice to say that they are not as accurate as are the tests for Chlamydia and gonorrhea. However, like the two above discussed STI’s, syphilis can be treated and cured with readily available antibiotics.
If you have any questions about STI’s, please do make an appointment to meet with myself or one of my colleagues at the Student Health Service. Here’s a reputable website you can explore if you want to learn more about the bacterial STI’s: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Dan Radosevich, M.D.