Chlamydia is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) — also commonly referred to as sexually transmitted disease (STD) — that affects both women and men.
It is a bacterial infection that can be spread through unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex or simply by touching an infected area. In addition, a pregnant woman with chlamydia can pass the infection to her baby during childbirth.
Chlamydia is one of the most common STIs in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 20 sexually active young women aged 14 to 24 has chlamydia. It is prevalent among younger people — about two-thirds of new chlamydia infections occur in people between the ages of 15 and 24.
Without treatment, chlamydia can cause serious health problems. In women, the infection can spread to the uterus or fallopian tubes and cause pelvic inflammatory disease, which increases the risk of infertility.
In men, untreated chlamydia can cause an infection of the urethra or epididymis (the tube that carries sperm from the testes). Untreated chlamydia also can increase the risk of contracting or becoming infected with HIV.
In pregnant women, chlamydia can increase the risk of premature birth or ectopic pregnancy, in which the fertilized egg develops outside of the uterus. Babies infected with chlamydia during birth may develop an eye infection or pneumonia.
Part of the reason chlamydia is so common is that about 75 percent of women and 50 percent of men infected with it have no symptoms.
“Many people who have chlamydia aren’t aware they have it, so they don’t know they may be infecting their sexual partners,” says Cynthia Wilson, DO, a family medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Carlsbad. “Often, women don’t find out they are infected until they have a gynecologic exam that tests for it.”
If women do have chlamydia symptoms, they may include:
- Unusual vaginal discharge
- Vaginal itching or burning
- Bleeding between periods
- Painful periods
- Abdominal pain with fever
- Pain during urination or sex
In men, symptoms of chlamydia may include:
- Clear or cloudy discharge from the penis
- Burning and itching at the tip of the penis
- Pain and swelling around the testicles
- Pain during urination
If the infection spreads from the vagina or penis to the rectum, both men and women may notice pain, bleeding or discharge in the rectum.
Your health care provider can test for chlamydia by taking a sample of your urine or genital discharge and sending it to the laboratory. If you are pregnant, you will likely be tested for chlamydia at your first prenatal visit and again in your third trimester.
Chlamydia will not go away on its own and should be treated to prevent serious health problems. Treatment is usually simple; in most cases, it involves antibiotics taken daily for seven to 10 days. It is important to tell your partner(s) if you test positive for chlamydia, so they can also be tested and treated if necessary.
If your provider prescribes antibiotics, be sure to take the entire dose. Stopping treatment too soon can cause the infection to return. Also, you should wait at least seven days after finishing the medication before you have sex again.
While antibiotics can treat chlamydia, they cannot reverse damage to organs already caused by the infection or prevent future infections. You can get chlamydia again if your partner has it and is not treated, or you have a new partner who is infected.
“We recommend being tested for chlamydia if you have a new sexual partner, or multiple partners. Plan to get tested at least once a year,” says Dr. Wilson. “We also strongly recommend using condoms if you have new or multiple partners to help reduce the chance of infection.”
If you are concerned about having chlamydia, talk to your health care provider about getting tested.