Chlamydia is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the bacterium Chlamydia Trachomatis. It is one of the most common STIs worldwide, and likewise here in Singapore. According to the latest statistics provided by the Department of STI Control (DSC) Clinic, there were officially 2,719 newly diagnosed cases of Chlamydia reported in 2018.
It is well known that Chlamydia affects the genito-urinary system, with the typical symptoms being painful urination, increased urinary frequency or urgency, penile or vaginal discharge, testicular pain or swelling in men, and painful sex or bleeding after sex in women. You may also be aware that Chlamydia can sometimes be completely asymptomatic. However, what most people may not know is that Chlamydia can affect other parts of the body as well, namely the eyes, rectum, throat and joints.
In this article, we will focus on Chlamydia eye infection, also known as Chlamydia Conjunctivitis. You can read more about Chlamydia as an overall topic in a previous article:
What is Chlamydia Conjunctivitis?
Conjunctivitis is inflammation or infection of the conjunctiva, a clear membrane that covers the white part of the eye and lines the inside of the eyelids. The conjunctiva helps to lubricate the eye by producing mucus and tears, and prevents the entry of microbes into the eye. The various causes of conjunctivitis include viral or bacterial infections, allergies, chemical irritation and foreign objects. Therefore Chlamydia Conjunctivitis refers to conjunctivitis resulting from a Chlamydia infection.
How does Chlamydia Conjunctivitis occur?
Chlamydia Conjunctivitis is directly spread from the bacteria entering the eyes. This usually happens from touching or rubbing your eyes after touching your genitals (if you have Chlamydia) or those of an infected partner. It is also possible to get infected from sharing towels, eye makeup or cosmetics that contain the bacteria.
Signs and symptoms
Chlamydia Conjunctivitis can present acutely, but more commonly patients have mild symptoms for weeks to months. The majority of cases affect only one eye, and vision is usually unaffected.
Signs and symptoms include:
- Red, itchy, swollen or scratchy eyes
- Mucous, sticky discharge
- Photophobia (sensitivity to light)
- Swollen eyelids
- Crusting and sticking of eyelids
- Foreign body sensation
- Enlarged lymph nodes behind the ears
How to tell the difference between Chlamydia Conjunctivitis and other forms of conjunctivitis?
As Chlamydia Conjunctivitis presents very similarly to viral and other bacterial conjunctivitis, it is not possible to tell the difference based on eye signs and symptoms alone. For this reason, many patients may have been previously treated, or self-medicated, with various types of eye drops without symptomatic relief. A diagnosis of Chlamydia Conjunctivitis is usually suspected if close questioning reveals genito-urinary symptoms, or if the sexual partners of these patients have similar eye symptoms.
Who is at risk?
Chlamydia can affect anyone who is sexually active, both males and females alike, regardless of sexual preference or orientation. Young people may be at higher risk for various reasons, including practices like inconsistent condom usage.
Chlamydia Conjunctivitis is usually diagnosed based on history and examination of the eye. If necessary, a swab test of the conjunctiva can be performed. Your doctor may advise you to test for other STIs as well.
Treatment for Chlamydia Conjunctivitis
If left untreated, Chlamydia Conjunctivitis resolves spontaneously in 6 to 18 months, but most individuals would seek treatment due to the severity of the symptoms. Chlamydia Conjunctivitis is treated with topical antibiotics such as tetracycline, erythromycin and fluoroquinolones, but due to the high probability of concomitant genital tract infection, oral antibiotic therapy is recommended. Sexual partners of the patients should be contacted, evaluated and treated.
- Wash your hands regularly, avoid touching or rubbing your eyes unless your hands are clean
- Do not share eye makeup or cosmetics with anyone
- Refrain from sharing towels, washcloths, pillows, or sheets with anyone. If one of your eyes is affected but not the other, use a separate towel for each eye
- Observe safe sexual practices including consistent and correct usage of condoms, reducing your number of partners or being in a mutually monogamous relationship where you are aware of your partner’s sexual health status
- Regular STI screening helps you remain aware of your own sexual health status
Neonatal Chlamydia Conjunctivitis
Although relatively harmless in adults, Chlamydia Conjunctivitis can have severe health consequences in children. Infection is acquired from an infected mother during vaginal delivery, from exposure to the bacteria in the birth canal. Chlamydia Trachomatis is responsible for up to 40% of conjunctivitis in neonates. If left untreated, neonatal conjunctivitis can cause blindness.
The symptoms usually develop within 1 day to 2 weeks after birth and typically include redness of the conjunctiva, eyelid swelling, and mucous discharge. At least half of neonates with Chlamydia Conjunctivitis also have the bacteria present in the nasopharynx, and some go on to develop Chlamydia pneumonia. Therefore, oral antibiotic therapy is the treatment of choice in neonatal Chlamydia Conjunctivitis as it can also target concomitant nasopharyngeal infection.
The condition can be prevented by undergoing prompt screening and treatment if a genital infection is suspected during pregnancy. Deliveries should be conducted under hygienic conditions taking all aseptic measures. The newborn baby’s closed lids should be thoroughly cleansed and dried.
Next Read: Common STD Incubation Periods