What Causes Chlamydia?
Chlamydia is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis, and it can affect both men and women. While no one wants to be told they have an STI, the good news is chlamydia is treatable. Here is what you need to know about chlamydia symptoms, treatment options and prevention.
How is chlamydia transmitted?
Chlamydia is spread by having vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who has chlamydia without a barrier, such as a condom or dental dam. The infection is carried in semen (cum), pre-cum and vaginal fluids, and it can infect the penis, vagina, cervix, anus, urethra, eyes and throat. It is important to note that penetration and ejaculation do not have to occur to get chlamydia. Touching genitals together can cause chlamydia to be transmitted. A pregnant person with chlamydia can also spread it to their baby during childbirth.
Your chances of getting chlamydia can increase if you:
- Do not use a condom during sex with a new partner
- Have a sexual partner who is having sex with other people
- Have a history of chlamydia or other STIs
How common is chlamydia?
The CDC reports that chlamydia is the most frequently reported bacteria STI in the United States. In 2018, an estimated four million chlamydia infections were reported, with two-thirds of cases coming from young adults between the ages of 15 and 24.
While chlamydia can affect both women and men, it is more common in women. Data shows the rate of infection is two times higher in women. Additionally, there are racial disparities in infection rates. In 2019, chlamydia rates for African Americans/Blacks were nearly six times that of whites.
What are the symptoms of chlamydia?
Most people with chlamydia don’t have any symptoms, so they might not even know they’re infected. Because of this, chlamydia is often referred to as the “silent infection.” This is why regular STI and STD testing is so important.
Chlamydia symptoms in women can include:
- Pain or burning while peeing
- Pain during sex
- Lower belly pain
- Abnormal vaginal discharge (may be yellowish and have a strong smell)
- Bleeding between periods
Chlamydia symptoms in men can include:
- A discharge from the penis
- A burning sensation when peeing
- Pain and swelling in one or both testicles (not as common)
If chlamydia is present in the anus, symptoms can include:
- Rectal pain
If chlamydia is present in the throat, symptoms can include:
- Sore throat
- Dry throat
If chlamydia is present in the eye, symptoms can include:
- Mucus or discharge
- Sensitivity to light
How do I get tested for chlamydia?
If a sexual partner tells you that they have chlamydia or you start to display symptoms of chlamydia, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor. If symptoms are not present, your doctor will likely ask you questions to understand your concern. If chlamydia symptoms are present, your doctor may first perform a physical exam to look for abnormal sores, discharge or unusual spots.
The most effective diagnostic test for chlamydia is to take cell samples from your urethra, vagina, cervix, or anus by swabbing that area. The samples are then tested for chlamydia bacteria, or Chlamydia trachomatis.
How is chlamydia treated?
If your results come back positive after getting tested for chlamydia, the good news is it is easily treated, and you can be cured. Your doctor will put you on antibiotics (Doxycycline is the most common antibiotic) to get rid of the bacterial infection. Some antibiotic treatment is given in a single dose, while other antibiotics may be taken over seven days. Your doctor will decide which treatment is best for you based on your infection.
While taking antibiotics, it is important to refrain from any sexual activity for seven days. Also, you should encourage sexual partners to get treated so that you do not continue to spread it back and forth.
How long will I test positive for chlamydia?
Whether your doctor puts you on the single-dose antibiotic treatment or the seven-day treatment, you should no longer be infectious after seven days, and you can resume sexual activity. If you’re partner also tests positive, refrain from sexual activity for at least 7 days after your partner completes treatment. It is important to follow dosage instructions carefully to ensure the infection clears up fully.
It is also important to keep in mind that even after being cleared of chlamydia, it is common to get it again. Be sure to use condoms for your best protection against chlamydia, and retest yourself in three to four months to ensure the infection is gone.
What happens if I don’t get treated for chlamydia?
While chlamydia is easy to treat, it can become a big deal if treatment is not provided. The bacteria can spread to the uterus and fallopian tubes, which can cause pelvic inflammatory disease. This can lead to pain, infertility and an increased risk of ectopic pregnancies, which is when the fertilized egg implants outside the uterus. The egg cannot survive in this state, and it can be life-threatening to the pregnant patient. Additionally, if you have chlamydia while you are pregnant, it can spread to your baby while giving birth, and this can cause your baby to have eye infections and pneumonia. Chlamydia during pregnancy can also increase your chances of having a pre-term delivery.
If you have a penis and chlamydia is left untreated, the bacteria can spread to your epididymis (the tube that carries sperm from the testicles). While this most likely will not cause infertility, it can lead to chronic joint pain.
While chlamydia of the eye is less common, it can occur with direct or indirect (you touch your eye after touching your genitals without washing your hands) contact with bacteria. If chlamydia has infected your eye and is left untreated, it can lead to blindness.
If you believe you have symptoms of chlamydia, be sure to schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor to get set up with treatment. It is quick and easy, and your issues should be resolved soon.
How can I reduce my risk of getting chlamydia?
The best way for a sexually active person to prevent contracting chlamydia is to use a barrier, such as a condom, when engaging in vaginal, anal or oral sex. To lower your chances of getting chlamydia, you should:
- Use a condom with all new partners.
- Get tested regularly for chlamydia and other sexually transmitted infections and diseases after engaging in sexual activity with new partners.
If you are concerned you have chlamydia or another sexually transmitted infection or disease, schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor to discuss the best next steps.