by Dr. Bill Rawls
If you’ve ever contended with chlamydia — and many of us have, considering an estimated 2.86 million Americans contract an infection each year — you likely treated it with antibiotics and considered it cured.
But like Lyme disease, chlamydia infections can become chronic, and they’ve have been associated with Lyme and other chronic illnesses, including chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pelvic pain, arthritis, and possibly even multiple sclerosis. So is chronic chlamydia a Lyme coinfection, and if so, how can it be diagnosed and treated? Read on to learn more.
Is Chlamydia a Lyme Coinfection?
It’s not considered one, because it is not typically carried by ticks. Instead, chlamydia is transmitted from person to person through sexual contact, or from an untreated mother to her newborn baby during childbirth.
But chlamydia are very similar to mycoplasma, the most common Lyme coinfection. Like mycoplasma, chlamydia are small, gram-negative bacteria that live and reproduce inside cells of a host, and they need basic raw materials from the host to survive (known as an obligate intracellular bacteria). And as with both mycoplasma and borrelia (the bacteria associated with Lyme disease), chlamydia definitely fits the definition of a stealth microbe.
The word “stealth” reflects the microbes’ elusive nature: they have sophisticated mechanisms to hide inside cells, where they remain shielded from the body’s defense system. In a healthy host that achieves balance with the microbe, there may be no visible symptoms of their presence; stealth microbes can lie undetected and dormant for years.
For that reason, the actual incidence of chronic chlamydia infections is unknown, but it’s likely high. And if a person’s immune function declines and becomes compromised due to other illness or system disruptors like toxins, chronic stress, or a high-carbohydrate diet, chlamydia can begin to contribute to disease.
Symptoms of chronic illness are very different than the initial acute illness. Defining chronic chlamydia infection can be extremely challenging because when immune system functions become compromised, other stealth microbes such as Epstein-Barr virus, borrelia, and bartonella also reactivate. This can cause the wide range of symptoms typical of chronic illnesses such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and chronic Lyme disease.
Let’s take a closer look at the three main forms of chlamydia that can infect humans.
1. Chlamydia pneumoniae
C. pneumoniae is the most common form of chlamydia, affecting 30-60% of the population worldwide. Humans are the natural host and reservoir for this species of the bacteria.
Transmission of C. pneumoniae is by airborne droplets, meaning the pathogenic microbes become suspended in the air on dust particles and water droplets. The droplets can make contact with your mucous membranes when they are inhaled, or when they’ve landed on a surface that you happen to touch.
At first, the infection affects the respiratory tract. C. pneumoniae is associated with pharyngitis (sore throat), sinusitis, middle ear infection, and bronchitis. Most infections are mild or asymptomatic, but if your immune function isn’t up to par, a more severe infection can take hold.
In fact, C. pneumoniae infection can progress to atypical pneumonia, which is similar to infections like mycoplasma. C. pneumoniae is responsible for 20% of community-acquired pneumonia, mostly in people over the age 65.
C. pneumoniae, in particular, has been discovered within artherosclerotic plaques of the arteries (along with other microbes). It’s also has been associated with myocarditis (infection of the heart muscle) and nervous system disorders, including multiple sclerosis.
Diagnosing Chlamydia pneumoniae
Testing includes indirect testing with antibodies, and direct testing for chlamydia DNA with PCR. Also, your healthcare provider may take a sample of your phlegm or a nasal or throat swab. Often, the testing methods for detecting the stealth microbe in a chronic chlamydia infection are poor, but a detailed medical history of your symptoms may lead a doctor to suspect the presence of C. pneumoniae.
2. Chlamydia trachomatis
The only known natural host for C. trachomatis is humans. In the developed world, it is a common sexually transmitted disease. In males, it can cause urethritis (infection of the urethra) and prostatitis (infection of the prostate).
In females, it can cause urethritis, cervicitis (infection of the cervix), and pelvic inflammatory disease. If the symptoms of C. trachomatis are unrecognized and untreated, the infection can cause scarring of the fallopian tubes, with infertility, chronic pelvic pain, and chronic fatigue.
But chlamydia infections regularly go unreported because it’s often a silent infection, meaning individuals who’ve acquired it may be asymptomatic. C. trachomatis has a slow incubation period, so the initial signs of the infection may not pop up for weeks.
Additionally, newborns of mothers who have genital chlamydia can acquire the infection, and it can cause conjunctivitis that may result in blindness. For this reason, all newborns in developed countries are treated after birth with antibiotic drops. In the developing world, where sanitation and hygiene are poor, ocular chlamydia infection (called trachoma) is a common cause of blindness. C. trachomatis can also cause pneumonia in newborns from infected mothers.
Diagnosing Chlamydia trachomatis
Testing involves a vaginal, cervical, urethral smear or urine sample using nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT). The test is reliable for picking up the infection in asymptomatic individuals. PCR testing also has a high sensitivity.
3. Chlamydia psittaci
C. psittaci is a bacterial infection that typically infects birds of many varieties. Although less common, humans who have contact with birds can acquire the infection as well. The microbe exists endemically in birds without causing disease unless the birds become stressed. Humans can become infected from breathing dust from infected feces or coming in close contact with birds that are infected and ill.
People who are most susceptible to a C. psittaci infection include avian breeders, bird owners, veterinarians, and poultry farm workers, according to a review in Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases. Indeed, the incidences of infection are most common in workers in the poultry industry, which is one of the reasons that antibiotic therapy is heavily used in the poultry industry.
Illness from C. psittaci consists of sudden onset of respiratory and flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headaches, muscles aches, and coughing. Initially, the symptoms may be mild, but they can quickly progress to severe pneumonia. Some people may experience complications of the heart, liver, nerves, or brain.
Diagnosing Chlamydia psittaci
Testing should be considered in any person experiencing severe, acute respiratory disease who has had close contact with birds. C. psittaci has not been associated with chronic illness, and typically, people begin to recover soon after taking antibiotics.
Conventional and Natural Remedies for Chlamydia
Both C. trachomatis and C. pneumoniae respond acutely to doxycycline, azithromycin, and other antibiotics, but it’s very unlikely that antibiotics completely eradicate the microbe from the body. Remember, the microbe can stay hidden and dormant in tissues for years where it’s hard to reach. Indeed, a chronic infection with any stealth microbe typically responds poorly to antibiotic therapy.
Therefore, the most functional therapy for chronic chlamydia is long-term suppression of the microbes with antimicrobial herbs, along with restoration of immune system functions. Herbs like berberine, andrographis, cat’s claw, sarsaparilla, and garlic can suppress stealth microbes without disrupting the normal flora of your gut. To enhance the function of the immune system, consider immune-modulating herbs like ashwagandha and Chinese tree bark.
Finally, it’s vital you take steps to sidestep the system disruptors that impair your immune system and leave you vulnerable to an overgrowth of unsavory microbes. That means:
Nourishing your body with a whole-foods diet that’s rich in vegetables and low in processed foods, grain-fed meats, excess carbohydrates, and unhealthy fats.
Purifying your environment by reducing your exposure to environmental toxins. Eat organic when you can, filter your water and air, and choose non-toxic cleaning supplies and beauty products.
Calming your mind on a daily basis with stress reduction and management techniques such as doing yoga, walking, coloring, or even napping.
Activating your body. Doing gentle, restorative exercise every day (yoga, tai chi, qigong) counters the modern-day pitfall of being too sedentary.
No matter which stealth microbes you’re dealing with, healthy lifestyle practices combined with herbal therapies can be beneficial for your healing. But know in advance that you’ll need to exercise patience and persistence with herbs, and you may need to experiment with a few before you find the ones that put you on a path to recovery.
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