Chlamydia is the most commonly reported sexually transmitted infection in America. In 2011, there were more than one million cases of chlamydia reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Chlamydia is a bacterial infection that affects both men and women, and is contracted through sexual contact. It can also be contracted without the formation of symptoms, but is easily treated with some antibiotics.

If chlamydia is left untreated, however, it can leave to widespread infections. In women, it is known to cause pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility due to damage of reproductive organs, as well as pain. Men rarely develop similar symptoms, but if the infection spreads to the testes, he, too, can become infertile.

Recently, people have stopped getting screened for chlamydia infections. As a result, when they finally are diagnosed, the infection has already spread and can no longer be effectively treated by antibiotics. A new study has found that infections left untreated create chronic infections, which can lead to genetic mutations and cancer.

Chlamydia bacteria live inside of one's cells. When foreign disease-causing agents like bacteria have access to cells, they can alter cellular processes and even stop the immune system from attacking them to protect the rest of the body from infection. When bacteria alter cellular processes, healthy cells that have just become infected will kill themselves in order to prevent further infection of other cells. The process by which a cell kills itself is called apoptosis. The cell released particular enzymes to both eat away at itself, as well as the bacteria.

However, bacteria can alter the apoptosis process if a cell has been infected for long enough. If apoptosis is hindered, cells begin to grow uncontrollably. This increases the amount of chlamydia-infected cells, as well as mutated cells that should have died for other reasons to promote health.

Uncontrollable cell growth, on its own, is a hallmark of cancer. And uncontrollable cell growth in regions of chlamydia infection, like the cervix or uterus, can be deadly. These incidences lead to the likelihood of human papilloma virus infection and its resultant cervical cancer.

While cancer treatments should not be used to treat dangerous cancer-causing sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia, control of the infection itself could prevent cancer altogether. Without the incidence of infection, the cells are unlikely to become cancerous. Cancer treatments are usually saved for advanced stages of these infections, but can be prevented if the infection never occurs or is treated right away.

In 2009, the CDC reports that over 84,000 women were diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer, like cervical, uterine, or ovarian cancer. The CDC adds that a little more than 27,000 of those women died form that cancer. These deaths could have been prevented if carcinogens like infections had been treated or otherwise eradicated. Some believe that prevention of cell death and encouragement of cell growth is not enough to implicate chlamydia infection in the development of cancers. However, because a major hallmark of cancer is uncontrolled cell growth, it is unlikely that this research is inconclusive.

The researchers intend to perform further research in order to find the exact link between chlamydia infections and cancer in women. However, given these results, it is highly important that all women at risk receive a chlamydia screening to be treated for potential infections that could worsen. The CDC recommends sexually active women under 25 be tested annually.

Source: Chumduri C, Gurumurthy RK, Zadora PK, Mi Y, Meyer TF. Chlamydia Infection Promotes Host DNA Damage and Proliferation but Impairs the DNA Damage Response. Cell. 2013.