The Facts on Chlamydia

Chlamydia is a bacterial disease that you can spread through sexual contact. The bacterium that causes it is called Chlamydia trachomatis. According to the CDC, chlamydia is the most frequently reported infectious disease in the United States. However, it is still largely underreported. Most people do not know they are infected with chlamydia. There are few symptoms in the early stages.

Who is at risk?

Anyone who has sex is at risk for chlamydia. Young adults are at particularly high risk because they are less likely to use condoms during sexual intercourse.

Can chlamydia be prevented?

Reducing the risks you take that increase your chance of getting chlamydia may help prevent it. Men and women can spread chlamydia by having unprotected vaginal, oral, or anal sex. You can reduce your risk by not having sex. Or if you do, you can lower your risk by limiting the number of sexual partners you have and by using condoms. Avoid sexual contact with an infected person until he or she finishes treatment. If you are diagnosed with chlamydia, all of your sexual partners should be tested and treated for the infection. Women are frequently reinfected if their sex partners are not treated.

Symptoms of chlamydia

Most people with chlamydia have no symptoms. An early sign of chlamydia in women is a mucous-like vaginal discharge. However, this is not an easy symptom to notice 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 abdomen or lower back

  • Nausea

  • Fever

  • Bleeding between menstrual periods

  • Painful intercourse

Men may have discharge from the penis, urinary frequency, burning with urination, and painful, swollen testicles.

Complications from chlamydia

Untreated, chlamydia can spread into the uterus of fallopian tubes and cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). Complications from PID are listed below.

  • Chronic pelvic pain

  • Infertility

  • Ectopic pregnancy

Ectopic pregnancy is also called tubal pregnancy. It happens when a fertilized egg sticks to the fallopian tube instead of the uterus. Ectopic pregnancies must be ended to save the mother's life.

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

  • Premature birth

  • Low birth weight

  • Infections such as conjunctivitis (an eye infection) and pneumonia

Women who have chlamydia are also at greater risk for catching HIV if they are exposed to the virus.

Some studies have shown an association of chlamydia with cervical cancer, but both of these have many of the same risk factors.

Diagnosis and treatment

If you are diagnosed with chlamydia, you can treat and quickly cure the disease. However, most women and men with chlamydia have mild symptoms or none at all. That is why the disease often remains undetected.

Until recently, it was hard to diagnose chlamydia because the tests were hard to do and the results were unreliable. A woman had to have a pelvic exam that allowed the doctor to take fluids from her cervix. Diagnosing a man involved taking a sample of fluid from his urethra. More sensitive, less invasive, and less costly tests are now available. One test, for instance, looks for chlamydia bacteria in a urine sample.

Doctors use antibiotics to treat chlamydia. The most common treatment is a seven-day course of doxycycline or a single dose of an antibiotic called azithromycin.

All sex partners should be evaluated, tested, and treated. People with chlamydia should not have sexual intercourse until they and their sex partners have completed treatment; otherwise, they can be re-infected. 

More screening is necessary

Widespread screening is an effective way to catch and treat chlamydia. The CDC and the Office of Population Affairs have implemented many screening programs. The CDC recommends yearly screenings for all sexually active females age 25 and under. It also recommends yearly screenings for older women who have one or more risk factors. Risk factors include having more than one sex partner or not using a condom. Pregnant women should always be screened for chlamydia.

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