What Is Chlamydia?

Chlamydia is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the US, affecting 3-5 million women and men a year. It has been referred to as a “silent epidemic” because the infection has no symptoms in 2/3 of all infected women and half of the infected men. 46% of females with chlamydia are between the ages of 15 and 19 years. Women between the ages of 20 to 24 represent about 33%.

The bacteria that cause chlamydia in the US, chlamydia trachomatis, can infect the mucous membranes in the penis, vagina, cervix, anus, urethra or eye.

Chlamydia can be a serious health threat for women. In women, the infection generally begins on the cervix. An untreated infection can spread to the fallopian tubes or ovaries causing Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). PID can result in sterility by scarring and blocking the fallopian tubes.

In men, chlamydia can cause epididymitis if it spreads from the urethra to the testicles. If epididymitis remains untreated, it can cause sterility in men.

What Are the Symptoms of Chlamydia?

Unfortunately, chlamydia often has no symptoms. Symptoms may begin in as few as five to ten days after exposure.

Symptoms for women may include:

  • abnormal vaginal discharge
  • bleeding between periods
  • vaginal bleeding after intercourse
  • abdominal pain
  • painful intercourse
  • low grade fever
  • painful urination
  • mucopurulent cervicitis (MPC) – a yellowish discharge from the cervix that may have a foul odor.

Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease. The symptoms of PID include:

  • lower abdominal pain
  • fever
  • vomiting
  • abnormal mucus discharge
  • longer and/or heavier periods
  • increased cramping with periods
  • pain during intercourse
  • fatigue and weakness

In men the symptoms are similar to the symptoms for gonorrhea. They may appear early in the day and be mild so men may not take them seriously. The symptoms may include:

  • pus, watery or milky discharge from the penis
  • pain or burning with urination
  • redness and swelling in the testicles

In men and women, Chlamydia affecting the rectum can cause itching, bleeding, mucus discharge and diarrhea. Touching the eye with infectious secretions can cause an eye infection characterized by redness, itching and a discharge.

How Is Chlamydia Diagnosed?

In women Chlamydia is diagnosed through examination of the cervix and cervical discharge. A swab taken from the cervix, urethra or anus can be sent to the laboratory for an evaluation.

A Pap test cannot diagnose Chlamydia, but it may indicate that a Chlamydia test would be appropriate.

How Is Chlamydia Treated?

Chlamydia is a treatable infection if treated promptly and appropriately. Chlamydia is treated with antibiotics – most commonly those of the tetracycline or erythromycin families. Both partners must be treated at the same time.

When being treated for chlamydia, remember:

  • Take all the prescribed medication. Symptoms may go away before all the bacteria are eradicated from your body.
  • Make sure your partner is treated at the same time you are so you do not re-infect each other.
  • A follow-up visit is mandatory to test to be sure the bacteria are gone before resuming sexual intercourse.
  • Don’t share your medicine with anyone.

How Does Chlamydia Affect Pregnancy?

Children born to women with active Chlamydia will be infected 20% to 50% of the time. These infants may develop ear infections, pneumonia and eye infections that can lead to blindness. Ear and respiratory infections in infants caused by Chlamydia are harder to treat than Chlamydia infections in adults.