Chlamydia, like gonorrhea, is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the world and in the U.S. Most people don’t have any symptoms—75% of women and 50% of men are asymptomatic—making it especially easily spread between partners. Untreated chlamydia can cause long-term health effects, so you should seek testing and treatment if you suspect that you may have been exposed to chlamydia. In this article, we will go over the risk factors for acquiring chlamydia, common symptoms, and how chlamydia is diagnosed and treated.
What Is Chlamydia?
Chlamydia is the most commonly reported STD in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) there are roughly 2.9 million new cases annually. Chlamydia is a bacterial infection and is treated with antibiotics, and is spread by vaginal, anal, and oral sex.
Chlamydia Symptoms in Women
While 75% of women with chlamydia do not experience symptoms, if you’re one of the 25% who do experience symptoms, the most common one is inflammation of the cervix (cervicitis), which can cause vaginal discharge or abdominal pain. Other symptoms can include:
- Vaginal redness and swelling
- Vaginal itching or burning
- Painful urination or a need to urinate frequently
- Painful sexual intercourse
Left untreated, chlamydia can cause inflammation and scarring of the fallopian tubes and ovaries, resulting in pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). It also significantly increases the risk of infertility and ectopic pregnancy. Symptoms of PID include fever, nausea, and pelvic pain.
While chlamydia can cause extensive damage if untreated, it can be easily and effectively be treated with antibiotics. Because it is so common for infected women to be asymptomatic, it’s important to be tested regularly if you are sexually active. If you are infected with chlamydia while pregnant, you will be at an increased risk of premature delivery and for infecting the baby as it passes through the birth canal.
Chlamydia Symptoms in Men
About half of infected men are asymptomatic. If symptoms do develop, they usually occur one to three weeks after infection. Some of the most common symptoms of chlamydia in men include:
- Burning sensation during urination
- Unusual discharge from the penis
- Pain in the lower abdomen
- Pain or occasionally swelling in the testicles
As with women, men can experience complications when chlamydia is left untreated. Infection can spread to the prostate gland, causing fever, lower back pain, and painful intercourse. It’s also possible for infection to spread to the epididymis, the tube that holds the testicles in place, causing pain and inflammation around the testicles.
General Symptoms of Chlamydia
While the majority of chlamydia infections affect the reproductive organs, it’s also possible for the infection to spread to other areas. Chlamydia infection can occur in the rectum and anus from anal sex, or from touching the genitals and then touching the anus. Anal chlamydia can cause rectal pain, anal discharge, and bleeding.
Additionally, chlamydia infection can occur in the eyes, called chlamydial conjunctivitis. This is a rare type of chlamydial infection, but it can occur if one gets the bacteria on their hands and then touches their eyes. Symptoms of chlamydial conjunctivitis include eye discharge, redness, swelling, itching, and sensitivity to light. Left untreated, chlamydial conjunctivitis can cause blindness, so it’s important to get tested and treated if you suspect you might be infected.
Importantly, untreated chlamydia also increases your chances of contracting HIV/AIDS by weakening your immune system.
Chlamydia Risk Factors
Anyone who has unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex can acquire chlamydia. People at increased risk include:
- Those with new or multiple sex partners
- Sexually active women 25 and younger
- Older women who have new or multiple sex partners, or a sex partner who has a sexually transmitted disease
- Men who have sex with men (MSM)
- People who currently or previously had an STD, especially gonorrhea
In women, chlamydia is usually diagnosed through a swab of the cervix or with a simple urine test. In men, chlamydia is diagnosed through a urine test or swab of the urethra. If there’s a chance the infection is in the anus, throat, or eyes, these areas may be swabbed as well.
Chlamydia is a bacterial infection and can be effectively treated with antibiotics. You may be given the antibiotic azithromycin, taken in one dose, or you may be prescribed doxycycline, an antibiotic taken twice a day for seven days.
To prevent spreading chlamydia, wait to have sex until seven days after taking the single dose of antibiotics, and until after completion of all seven days of the multi-dose medication. Because it is somewhat common to get a repeat infection of chlamydia, it’s a good idea to be tested for it again about three months after treatment. Do not engage in any sexual activity and get tested immediately if you experience any symptoms of chlamydia.
While refraining from sexual contact is the only way to prevent chlamydia and other STDs, there are steps that you can take to decrease your chances of infection while remaining sexually active.
- Have sex in the context of a long-term, monogamous relationship
- Make sure any new partner is tested for STDs before beginning a sexual relationship
- Have honest and open conversations with potential partners about your sexual histories
- Use male and/or female condoms for genital intercourse, dental dams for oral sex, and latex gloves for manual stimulation
- Avoid sexual activity with a partner who is symptomatic with an STD
- Sexually active women should get a Pap smear every three to five years and be regularly tested for other STDs
- To help stop the spread of STDs, if you’ve been diagnosed with one, let your partner/s know immediately so that they can be tested
When to See a Doctor
If you are sexually active and displaying symptoms of chlamydia, or any other STD, it’s important to see a doctor for evaluation and treatment as soon as possible. The CDC advises sexually active women under 25 years old to get screened for chlamydia every year. It’s also a good idea to be tested when beginning a sexual relationship with a new partner.