20 Jan, 2022

What you should know about chlamydia and gonorrhea

In the STD family, chlamydia and gonorrhea are the two most reported ones in the United States. For context, STD stands for “Sexually Transmitted Diseases”. You will most likely also come across its synonymous term “STI”, for “Sexually Transmitted Infections”. These infections or diseases are caused by bacteria, and they can have long-term negative health consequences on a teenager. This is especially true if the teenager doesn’t receive timely treatment. This article will go through important information about chlamydia and gonorrhea. We hope this will give you the tools to be proactive when it comes to the health of your students.

How common are chlamydia and gonorrhea infections in the US?

The bad news is that new STI cases have been increasing year after year. There were almost 2 million new cases of chlamydia in 2019 and 600,000 new gonorrhea contaminations. And among these new cases, 61% were in people aged 15-24. Missouri alone had 42,358 new cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea in the previous year.

So how does a teenager get chlamydia or gonorrhea?

Chlamydia and gonorrhea spread through sexual contact. This includes any type of sex, not just intercourse. On the other hand, it’s not possible to get these STIs through casual contact such as hugging, holding hands, sneezing, sitting on a toilet seat, and so on.  

The crucial fact to be aware of is that most people with active chlamydia or gonorrhea infections don’t have symptoms. That’s why some scientists call these STIs (among others) a “hidden epidemic”. But if a teenager is sick, they can still unintentionally and unknowingly pass the infection to someone else through sexual contact. Furthermore, just because they don’t have symptoms doesn’t mean the bacteria are not causing damage to their bodies.

Condoms can help reduce the risk of getting and passing chlamydia or gonorrhea, but they are not 100% effective. The only sure way for a teenager to avoid STIs completely is to not engage in sex and wait until they are in a lifelong monogamous relationship such as marriage.

How can a teenager know they have chlamydia or gonorrhea?

Many teenagers won’t know they have chlamydia or gonorrhea unless they get a test. The CDC estimates that only 10% of men and 5 to 30% of women have symptoms from chlamydia, while “most women” and “many men” are asymptomatic with gonorrhea. 

The telltale signs when someone does experience symptoms include:

  • Urinary issues, such as a burning or throbbing sensation when peeing
  • An abnormal, discolored, and sometimes smelly discharge from the genital area
  • Pain in the rectum or an abnormal discharge or bleeding in that area

Know that symptoms are not limited to the genital area. A teenager might also get a sore throat, a cough, or even an eye infection if these areas were in contact with contaminated fluids.

Pure Freedom’s mission is to promote optional health for youth. This is why we encourage sexually active teenagers to get tested. Our medical team at Lifeline provides no-cost testing, for which you can find more information here

Can chlamydia and gonorrhea affect a teenager long-term?

Yes, chlamydia and gonorrhea can impact a teenager’s future in different ways. 

In girls, these infections can cause:

  • Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID): PID is an infection that is caused by bacteria moving up the reproductive tract and affecting the uterus, fallopian tubes, or ovaries. These bacteria can then cause inflammation, which leads to other issues. Not every woman who has PID knows it. Common symptoms include pain in the abdomen, pelvis, or pain when peeing, abnormal discharge, bleeding, as well as fever. PID can be cured when it is treated early, but any damage that has already been done is likely to stay. Therefore, some women may experience long-term chronic pelvic pain and pain during sex. 
  • Future infertility: PID can also lead to tubal factor infertility, which is when the fallopian tubes become blocked by scarring. It is one of the most common types of infertility, accounting for 30% of cases in the United States. Most of the time, infection leads to inflammation of the fallopian tubes, which in turn causes TFI. Tragically, many women don’t know they have TFI and they only find out when they can’t have children later on.
  • Ectopic pregnancy: Another condition that can be caused by PID is an ectopic pregnancy. A pregnancy is “ectopic” when the embryo implants somewhere other than in the uterus. In the case of PID, it can’t travel through the fallopian tubes to reach it. In this situation, the new life is oftentimes not viable because it can’t grow normally. Additionally, the ectopic location of the pregnancy poses a real risk to the mother’s health. You can read more about ectopic pregnancy and the signs to watch for in this previous blog post

A study has shown that chlamydia increases the risk of developing PID, TFI, or an ectopic pregnancy by 30% and that this risk remains throughout 17 years of follow-up. Although less widespread in the US, gonorrhea is also a major factor in developing these complications.

In addition, teenage girls can also:

  • Have an increased risk of developing cervical cancer in the future: That risk is not well understood yet but has been found in 11 independent studies

In boys, chlamydia and gonorrhea can cause:

  • Future infertility: gonorrhea, and more rarely, chlamydia, can cause inflammation in the tubes attached to the testicles, resulting in infertility. Epididymitis is the name of this condition.
  • Infection in other parts of the body: gonorrhea may enter the bloodstream and infect internal organs, joints, or the skin. Consequently, this can cause chronic pains, fever, swelling, rashes, and skin sores.

Last but not least, both of these infections make anyone more likely to get other STIs. This includes HPV (human papillomavirus), which can cause cervical cancer and genital warts, as well as HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS.

What should a teenager do if they suspect they may have chlamydia or gonorrhea? 

Getting tested is highly recommended. In addition to the STI service provided by Lifeline, our Pure Freedom team always distributes a list of testing sites available. If the test comes back positive, the teenager should get immediate treatment and avoid any sexual activity in the meantime. They should also let any sexual partner know about their positive test.

When it comes to helping teenagers avoid STIs, primary prevention education is proven to be the best approach. It teaches students the skills to avoid the risks related to sex all together, as compared to simply reducing them through the use of contraception. You can read more about primary prevention education and how it is used in our Sexual Risk Avoidance curriculum here.

If you have questions regarding this subject and how we approach it in the classroom, you can contact our team at purefreedom@lifelinepregnancyhelp.org or call us at (660) 665-5688.

Written by Elodie Takamiya.