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Chlamydia: Symptoms, Treatments and Prevention

Though it's one of the most common and curable sexually transmitted diseases in both genders, chlamydia is often symptomless and goes untreated. When it does, the consequences in women can be particularly severe, resulting in chronic pelvic pain or infertility.

About 4 million Americans are infected each year with chlamydia, a bacterial infection that can spread through the genital tract from various types of sexual contact, according to the Mayo Clinic. Teens and young adults are most often affected, according to the American Social Health Association (ASHA).

A 3-D depiction of Chlamydia bacteria.
Chlamydia, the most common sexually transmitted disease in the world, is caused by the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis.
Credit: Sebastian Kaulitzki | Shutterstock

Symptoms

Chlamydia is considered a silent condition because most of those infected experience no symptoms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Symptoms that do appear usually occur within one to three weeks of infection. In women, they include:

  • Vaginal discharge
  • Burning or pain while urinating
  • Lower abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Fever
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Bleeding between periods

In men, they include:

  • Penis discharge
  • Burning or pain while urinating
  • Burning or itching in opening of penis
  • Testicular pain
  • Uncommonly, pain and swelling of the testicles

Complications of untreated chlamydia can be serious for both genders. In addition to pelvic pain and infertility in women, this STD can result in pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can damage the ovaries, uterus and fallopian tubes. In men, a chlamydia infection can lead to conditions such as prostatitis, an inflammation of the prostate gland; or epididymitis, an inflammation of the coiled tube (the epididymis) internally located beside each testicle.

In both men and women, rectal inflammation can result for those who engage in anal sex, leading to pain and mucus discharge, according to the Mayo Clinic. Even newborns can contract the infection if it passes through the birth canal from mother to baby during childbirth. These babies can suffer from pneumonia or a severe eye infection just after birth.

 

Diagnosis & Tests

Because chlamydia is hard to detect, the CDC recommends screening tests for sexually active women age 24 or under, pregnant women, and men and women at higher risk because of multiple sex partners or another existing STD.

Whether to screen or diagnose the disease, the laboratory tests involved are the same. They include:

  • A urine test to look for bacterial cells
  • A swab of the cervix or end of the penis, which can detect either the bacteria or the presence of an antigen to the infection (the anus may also be swabbed in some cases)

Treatments & Medications

Chlamydia is an easily treatable and curable condition, according to the CDC. Oral antibiotics are most commonly used, including azithromycin (known as the brand name Zithromax), doxycycline and erythromycin. These may be prescribed as a one-time dose or a daily dose over five to 10 days.

According to the ASHA, chlamydia can be transmitted to a sexual partner until antibiotic treatment is completed. The infection usually clears within two weeks. To prevent re-infection, sexual partners should also be treated regardless of the presence of symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Prevention

The only fail-safe way to prevent chlamydia is to abstain from sexual contact with others. Ways to reduce risk include:

  • Using condoms during every sexual encounter
  • Limiting the number of sex partners
  • Undergoing regular screenings

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