What Is Chlamydia?
Chlamydia is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a bacterium called Chlamydia trachomatis. It affects mostly young women, but people of all genders and ages can get it.
The CDC estimates that 1 in 20 sexually active young women between the ages of 14 and 24 has it. In 2020, there were 2.4 million reported chlamydia cases in the United States only. This number was 13% lower than in 2019. However, the CDC believes a decrease in STD screening during the pandemic is responsible for that decline, not a reduction in infections.
Even though the number of reported cases is already high, the actual number is probably even higher. Indeed, 40 to 96% of people do not experience symptoms when they have chlamydia, and asymptomatic individuals are not as likely to seek testing. They remain undiagnosed, and their case is not reported to public health agencies.
Chlamydia is common and can have serious health consequences if untreated. Therefore, you need to know as much as possible about this disease to take the necessary precautions. Read ahead to learn more about chlamydia as we discuss its cause, symptoms, treatment, and prevention.
How do you get chlamydia?
There are a few ways to get chlamydia. The first is through all forms of sexual relations: oral, vaginal, and anal. Unlike what some people think, semen does not have to be present for the infection to spread.
Always wash your hands after having sex because the disease can spread to your eyes if you rub them while you have infected fluid on your hands. Finally, a baby can get chlamydia from their mother during childbirth.
You cannot get chlamydia from sharing foods or drinks with another person. You also cannot get infected by kissing, hugging, coughing, sneezing, or sitting on a toilet.
What are the risk factors for chlamydia?
A few factors increase your risk of contracting chlamydia. These include:
- Your age. You are more likely to get chlamydia if you are sexually active and under 25 because this age group is the most commonly affected.
- Your sexual habits. Having sex with multiple partners and not always using a condom increase your risk.
- Your past medical history. You are more likely to have chlamydia if you had another STI in the past.
What are the symptoms of chlamydia?
As mentioned above, the majority of individuals who get it do not have symptoms, and this for many weeks following the infection. One of the reasons why is the slow replication cycle of the organism causing the disease. Once in your body, Chlamydia trachomatis takes a long time to replicate and spread, which means it can infect you for a long time without causing symptoms.
Once you start having symptoms, you may experience:
- Painful urination
- Abnormal vaginal or penile discharge
- Painful sexual relations
- Bleeding between periods or after sex
- Swelling or pain in the testicles (one or both)
- Lower abdominal pain
- Pain, bleeding, and/or discharge around the anus
- Redness, itchiness, and/or discharge around the eye (only if the eye gets infected)
What are the possible complications of chlamydia?
One of the reasons why it is so important to diagnose and treat chlamydia early is the risk of complications. Some of them include:
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). You develop PID when your uterus and fallopian tubes get infected. Some symptoms include pelvic pain and fever. If you do not treat PID early enough, it can irreversibly damage your reproductive organs and cause infertility.
- Ectopic pregnancy. Chlamydia increases the risk for ectopic pregnancy, which is a pregnancy that occurs outside the uterus. The fetus is non-viable, and the only option is to terminate the pregnancy to prevent life-threatening complications for the mother, like a burst fallopian tube.
- Health risks for newborns. If your baby gets chlamydia during childbirth, they can develop a bad eye infection and pneumonia.
- Epididymitis. Chlamydia can result in an infection of the coiled tube located near the testicles, called the epididymis. The symptoms include fever, swelling, and pain in the scrotum.
- Prostate infection. Although rare, chlamydia can spread to your prostate. When this happens, you can experience painful sexual intercourse, lower back pain, fever, chills, and painful urination.
- Reactive arthritis. Reactive arthritis, also called Reiter’s syndrome, happens in response to an infection in another part of the body, like in the case of chlamydia. Some signs and symptoms include eye inflammation, painful and stiff joints, urinary problems, swollen toes and fingers, and lower back pain.
How do you diagnose chlamydia?
Chlamydia is most often diagnosed with nucleic acid amplification tests (NAATs). To perform a NAAT, you first need to collect a sample. The specimen of choice for men is urine. It is also possible to collect a urine sample from women, but a vaginal swab is usually preferred. If your doctor suspects the infection has spread to your anus or throat, they may also swab those areas.
Once your physician has collected the sample, they send it to the laboratory for analysis. The results are usually available in a few days. If you test positive, your doctor will schedule a follow-up appointment to discuss and prescribe treatment.
You can also purchase an at-home STI testing kit. Those kits test for chlamydia and other STDs. You will have to pay out-of-pocket for the kit, but the advantage is that you can collect the sample in the privacy of your own home. If you receive a positive result, you must schedule an appointment with a healthcare provider to receive appropriate treatment.
Who should get tested for chlamydia?
Regular testing is essential to slow down the spread of chlamydia, provide early treatment and prevent long-term complications.
You should get tested immediately if you experience symptoms like discharge, painful urination, and unusual sores or rash. Since chlamydia does not cause early symptoms for most people, you should also get tested if:
- You had unprotected sex with a new partner.
- Your partner has chlamydia.
- You have sex with multiple partners.
Finally, the CDC recommends that all sexually active women under 25 get a yearly screening test as they are the most at risk.
What is the treatment for chlamydia?
We can easily treat chlamydia with antibiotics. Depending on your doctor and the treatment they select for you, you may have to take it only once or for seven days. If you have to take more than one dose of antibiotic, remember to take all the doses, even if your symptoms disappear before you finish your treatment.
Schedule another test 3-4 months after your treatment to ensure you no longer have chlamydia.
Remember to tell all your sexual partners if you get diagnosed with chlamydia so they can also get tested and treated, if necessary.
How can you prevent chlamydia?
Prevention is key to avoiding chlamydia. Also, please remember that treatment does not immunize you against the disease. In other words, if you get treated for chlamydia, you still need to be careful because you can have it again.
To prevent chlamydia:
- Use barrier protection. Using condoms or a dental dam during sexual relations significantly reduces your risk of chlamydia.
- Limit your number of partners. The more sexual partners you have, the higher your risk of infection.
- Get regular screening tests. It applies to you and your sexual partner(s).