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The Facts on Chlamydia

Chlamydia is a disease that you can get through sexual contact. It is caused by bacteria called Chlamydia trachomatis. The CDC says chlamydia is the most commonly reported sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by bacteria. But many cases may be missed. That's because most people don't know they have it. The infection may have few symptoms in the early stages.

Who is at risk?

Anyone who has sex is at risk for chlamydia. Young adults are at very high risk. They may be less likely to use condoms during sex. They may be more likely to have many sex partners.

Young women also may have cervical ectopy. Cervical ectopy means that the layer of cells lining the cervical canal extends to the outer layer of the cervix. This raises their risk for chlamydia. Some young adults may also not have access to STD prevention care.

Can chlamydia be prevented?

Practicing safe sex may help prevent chlamydia. Men and women can spread this disease by having unprotected sex. This includes vaginal, oral, or anal sex. You can lower your risk by not having sex. Or if you do have sex, you can lower your risk by limiting the number of sex partners you have.

You can also lower your risk by using condoms and by using a dental dam during oral sex. Don't have sex with an infected person until he or she is done with treatment. If you have chlamydia, all your sex partners from the last 60 days should be tested. They should be treated for the disease if they test positive for it. Women are often infected again if their sex partners aren’t treated.

Symptoms of chlamydia

Most people with chlamydia have no symptoms. An early sign of the disease in women is a mucous-like vaginal discharge. But women may not notice this because many women have different amounts of discharge from day to day. These are other symptoms that women may have:

  • Pain or burning when urinating

  • Abnormal vaginal discharge

  • Pain in the lower belly or lower back

  • Nausea

  • Fever

  • Bleeding between menstrual periods

  • Painful intercourse

Men with chlamydia may have discharge from the penis. They may also urinate often and have burning when they urinate. They may also have painful, swollen testicles.

Complications from chlamydia

Chlamydia can spread into the uterus and fallopian tubes if not treated. It can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). Complications from PID are:

  • Long-term pelvic pain

  • Infertility

  • Ectopic pregnancy (tubal pregnancy). This happens when a fertilized egg implants in the fallopian tube instead of in the uterus. These pregnancies must be ended to save the mother's life. This often requires surgery.

Chlamydia during pregnancy can affect the baby. These are some possible effects:

  • Premature birth

  • Low birth weight

  • Infections such as eye infection (conjunctivitis) and pneumonia

People with chlamydia are also at greater risk of getting HIV if they are exposed to someone with the virus.

Men who have untreated chlamydia can get infections of the genital tract and prostate. Other problems of the disease in men are reactive arthritis and conjunctivitis. For men having sex with men (or women who have anal sex), chlamydia can cause an infection of the rectal area. Certain strains of chlamydia can cause lymphogranuloma venereum (LGV). This health problem most often affects the rectal area. It causes bleeding, pain, abscesses, or damage to tissue (fistulas).

Diagnosis and treatment

If you are diagnosed with chlamydia, you can quickly cure the disease with treatment. But most people with it have mild symptoms or none at all. That is why many people don’t know they have chlamydia.

Chlamydia can now be easily tested for with a urine sample, vaginal swab, or rectal swab. Many women now have chlamydia tests done on the same sample used to do a Pap test.

Healthcare providers treat chlamydia with antibiotics. The most common treatment is either a 7-day course of doxycycline or 1 dose of azithromycin.

All sex partners should be checked, tested, and treated. If you have chlamydia, don't have sex until you and your sex partners are done with treatment. If not, you may get infected again. Wait 1 week after taking the 1-dose azithromycin. You can start having sex again the day after finishing treatment with the 7-day course of doxycycline.

The LGV type of chlamydia is harder to treat. You'll need 3 weeks of daily antibiotics.

More screening is needed

Widespread screening is a good way to diagnose and treat chlamydia. The CDC and the Office of Population Affairs have started many screening programs. The CDC recommends screening every year for all sexually active women ages 25 and under. It also recommends yearly screenings for older women who have one or more risk factors. Risk factors include having more than 1 sex partner and not using a condom. Pregnant women should always be screened for chlamydia. In women, all likely exposed body sites should be screened, such as the vagina and rectum.

Men who have sex with men should be screened regularly for chlamydia at all exposed body sites.

Some healthcare providers will also screen the throat for chlamydia. But the CDC does not recommend it. Any positive results need to be interpreted with care.

Online Medical Reviewer: Barry Zingman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Rita Sather RN
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2019
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