What Is Chlamydia?
Chlamydia is caused by bacteria. It is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases in the U.S. This infection is easily spread because it often causes no symptoms. That means you can pass chlamydia to sexual partners without knowing it. In fact, about 75% of infections in women and 50% in men have no symptoms. If you don’t treat it, chlamydia can cause serious complications.
If you do get chlamydia symptoms, they usually show up within 1 to 3 weeks after contact.
Chlamydia symptoms in women
- Abnormal vaginal discharge that may have an odor
- Bleeding between periods
- Painful periods
- Abdominal pain with fever
- Pain when you have sex
- Itching or burning in or around your vagina
- Pain when you pee
Chlamydia symptoms in men
- Small amounts of clear or cloudy discharge from the tip of your penis
- Painful urination
- Burning and itching around the opening of your penis
- Pain and swelling around your testicles
- Anus: Discomfort and discharge
- Throat: There usually are no symptoms
- Eyes: Redness, pain, and discharge
Chlamydia trachomatis, the bacteria that causes chlamydia, most often spreads through unprotected vaginal, oral, or anal sex. You get it from the semen or vaginal fluid of an infected person. It can also pass from an infected person to another through genital contact, even if there’s no sex. Pregnant women can give it to their unborn children during delivery.
There are a few different tests your doctor can use to diagnose chlamydia. They’ll probably use a swab to take a sample, either from the urethra (the tube urine comes out of) in men or from the cervix in women. It goes to a laboratory for analysis. They may also check a urine sample for the bacteria.
Chlamydia is curable. Because it’s a bacterial infection, doctors can treat it with antibiotics. If you have chlamydia, your doctor will prescribe oral antibiotics, usually azithromycin (Zithromax) or doxycycline. They’ll also recommend your partner(s) get treated to prevent reinfection and further spread of the disease.
With treatment, the infection should clear up in about a week or two. It’s important to finish all of your antibiotics, even if you feel better.
Women who have a severe chlamydia infection may need treatment in a hospital, intravenous antibiotics (medicine given through a vein), and pain medicine.
After you finish the antibiotics, you should get retested after 3 months to be sure the infection is cured. This is particularly important if you aren’t sure your partner(s) were treated. But do get tested even if your partner(s) were treated. Don’t have sex until you’re sure both you and your partner(s) no longer have the disease.
If you don’t get treated for chlamydia, you run the risk of several health problems:
- Women. If left untreated, a chlamydia infection can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, which can damage your fallopian tubes (the tubes that connect your ovaries to your uterus). It can even cause infertility (the inability to have children). An untreated chlamydia infection could also increase your risk of ectopic pregnancy (when the fertilized egg implants and develops outside your uterus). And chlamydia may cause premature births (giving birth too early). If mothers pass the infection to their children during childbirth, the newborn could have eye infections, blindness, or pneumonia.
- Men. Chlamydia can cause an infection of the epididymis (the tube that carries sperm away from the testes) or proctitis -- inflammation of the rectum.
- Both. Men and women can get a condition called nongonococcal urethritis (NGU) -- an infection of the urethra.
To reduce your risk of a chlamydia infection:
- Use condoms correctly every time you have sex.
- Limit your number of sex partners, and don’t go back and forth between partners.
- Practice sexual abstinence, or limit sexual contact to one uninfected partner.
- If you think you’re infected, avoid sexual contact and see a doctor.
Any genital symptoms, like a discharge or burning during urination or an unusual sore or rash, should be a signal to stop having sex and to see a doctor right away. If you’re diagnosed with and treated for chlamydia or any other sexually transmitted disease, tell all your recent sex partners so they can see a doctor and be treated.
Because chlamydia often has no symptoms, infected people may unknowingly spread it to their sex partners. Many doctors recommend that all people who have more than one sex partner should be tested for chlamydia regularly, even if there are no symptoms.