Chlamydia is often asymptomatic in the early stages, so it can be hard to spot.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and words by Claire Chamberlain
Chlamydia is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the UK. It affects both sexes, although women are more at risk. If caught early chlamydia is easily cured, but unfortunately it often produces no symptoms in either men or women so it can remain undetected. If left untreated it can have serious complications, so if you are at risk of chlamydia it’s important that you get tested.
We speak to Abbas Kanani, pharmacist at Chemist Click about chlamydia causes, symptoms and treatment options:
What is chlamydia?
Chlamydia is caused by the bacteria chlamydia trachomatis. The reason for its prevalence – especially among young adults under the age of 25 – is that most people don’t know they have it, meaning it spreads easily as a result.
MORE FROM NETDOCTOR
The bacteria initially infects the urethra – the tube that brings urine from the bladder to the outside. In men it can spread to infect the testicles. In women it can spread to the cervix, uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes. In all genders, chlamydia bacteria can infect the rectum (back passage), eyes and the back of the nose.
Chlamydia – signs and symptoms in women
Symptoms can arrive 1–3 weeks after contracting chlamydia, but for some people it can take months, or becomes apparent when the infection spreads to other parts of your body.
Most women do not typically display symptoms of chlamydia. However, around three in every 10 women do experience symptoms, which may include:
- Pain when urinating
- Vaginal discharge
- Lower abdominal or pelvic pain
- Sex that is painful
- Bleeding after sex
- Vaginal bleeding
Chlamydia – signs and symptoms in men
For men, symptoms present themselves more than for women. Around half of men who have chlamydia display symptoms. These may include:
- Pain when urinating
- Discharge from the penis
- A burning or itchy sensation around the urethra
- Testiclesthat are swollen or tender
How do you catch chlamydia? Chlamydia is transmitted through unprotected sexual intercourse with somebody who has the infection, or via contact with their genital fluid. For example:
- Ingesting genital fluids or genital fluids coming into contact with the eye.
- Chlamydia can also be caught if your genitals come into contact with an infected person’s genitals, even if there is no penetration.
- Chlamydia can be passed on through vaginal, anal and oral sex as well as simply through close contact between genitals.
- Sharing sex toys can also spread chlamydia.
Contrary to popular belief, you cannot get chlamydia from toilet seats, swimming pools, sharing towels or clothing. This is because bacteria are unable to survive outside the human body for prolonged periods, and can only be transmitted when genital fluid comes into contact with body tissue.
How do you know you have chlamydia? The only way to discover whether or not you have chlamydia is to get tested. Testing for it is quick and painless, and it can be treated with a course of antibiotics.
‘Testing involves providing a urine sample that is analysed in a laboratory for the Chlamydia trachomatis bacteria,’ says Kanani. ‘This can be done by visiting a sexual health clinic, seeing your GP, or by ordering an STI test kit online. Results typically take a few days to come back.’
Testing for chlamydia is quick and painless, and it can be treated with a course of antibiotics.
Ideally, urine samples should be the first urine of the day to provide the strongest concentration of bacteria. Women are often tested using a vaginal swab rather than a urine sample.
Is chlamydia serious? Chlamydia can have serious complications if it’s not treated early on. Women who are not treated for chlamydia run the risk of developing pelvic inflammatory disease.
‘Pelvic inflammatory disease can affect the reproductive system and may also cause complications when trying to conceive,’ says Kanani. ‘Men who are not treated for chlamydia run the risk of it reaching their testicles, causing inflammation and tenderness. This is not only painful, but may also lead to infertility.’
‘Chlamydia that is untreated can also cause reactive arthritis, a condition that causes inflammation in the joints, eyes or urethra,’ adds Kanani. ‘This condition may affect both women and men.’
Chlamydia treatment advice
The good news is that chlamydia is easily treated with a short course of antibiotics. You may be given a short dosage to take all on one day, or a longer course to take for a week.
‘Antibiotics used in treating chlamydia are considered to be extremely effective, with a 97 per cent success rate,’ says Kanani. ‘However, it’s important that the antibiotics are taken in the correct way and that doses are not missed.’
The two different antibiotics used to treat chlamydia are doxycycline and azithromycin:
Doxycycline is taken twice daily for seven days. Research has shown doxycycline to be 100 per cent effective in the treatment of chlamydia.
The second option is azithromycin, which is taken as a single, one-off treatment. Research has shown that azithromycin has a 97 per cent success rate in curing chlamydia.
Azithromycin is usually preferred over doxycycline, as it only needs to be taken as a one-off dose, whereas doxycycline is taken over the course of the week. Azithromycin also has a lower side-effect profile and may be used in pregnancy.
Chlamydia prevention tips
To prevent the spread of chlamydia try the following:
✔️ Use a barrier method of contraception, such as condoms for vaginal, anal and oral sex.
✔️ Have regular STI check-ups. It’s recommended to have an STI test each time you change sexual partner.
✔️ Avoid the use of sex toys that aren’t yours. If you do share sex toys, wash them thoroughly before use and cover with a new condom each time.
✔️ Do not have sexual contact with a partner while you are being treated for chlamydia. If you had the single dose treatment, wait for one week before you have sex.
💡 If you are under 25 and are sexually active, it’s recommended that you get tested for chlamydia every year or every time you change sexual partner.
Chlamydia contact tracing
Do you need to tell your partner if you have chlamydia? If you have tested positive for chlamydia then it is important that the people you have had sexual contact with are informed. They need to be tested and treated. They may not have any symptoms and may pass chlamydia on to others.
You can tell them yourself and they can go to a sexual health clinic for testing. Alternatively, the clinic that treated you can get in touch with them. They can do this anonymously, by sending a note that does not contain your name.