Updated December 2016.
What is chlamydia?
Chlamydia is the most common bacterial sexually transmitted infection (STI). It is caused by the bacteria chlamydia trachomatis and can infect the penis, vagina, cervix, anus, urethra, or eye. Because the signs of chlamydia often go unnoticed, an individual can develop serious health complications before they recognize that they are infected.
Is it common?
There are approximately 4 million cases of chlamydia in the US each year and 3 out of every 4 cases reported were in individuals under the age of 25. Though the disease is easily treatable, it can be present without showing any symptoms and individuals can go a long time without knowing they are infected. Because individuals don't always know they are infected, the number of chlamydia infections is significantly underreported.
How is it transmitted?
Chlamydia can be transmitted during vaginal, anal, or oral sex and can be transmitted even if there are no signs or symptoms of infection. Chlamydia can also be passed from an infected mother to a newborn during vaginal childbirth.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms for people with penises may include:
Painful, burning sensation during urination
Watery or milky discharge from the penis
Inflammation of the urinary opening
Pain or swelling in the testicles
The symptoms for people with vaginas may include:
Vaginal irritation or itching
Abnormal vaginal discharge
Irregular vaginal bleeding
Pain during intercourse
Painful urination or a frequent need to urinate
However, about 90% of people with vaginas and 70% of people with penises have no symptoms until the infection is quite advanced. Many people with vaginas only discover they have chlamydia when they have a pelvic exam or when a partner develops symptoms. Because people can have chlamydia and not have any symptoms, they can have the infection for a long time before they receive treatment. Infection can spread from the cervix to the uterus and cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). If PID is not treated, it can cause scarring and sterility. It can also spread from the urethra to the testicles, causing inflammation and sterility if not treated.
If you experience any of the symptoms above or think you might have been exposed to chlamydia, you should consult a medical provider immediately and abstain from sex until you have been tested and until you and your partner(s) have completed any prescribed medication.
How soon after exposure to chlamydia will symptoms appear?
If you are infected with chlamydia you might not have symptoms, but if symptoms do occur, they usually surface within 1 to 3 weeks of exposure.
How is it diagnosed?
Your medical provider will take a swab of the vaginal, rectal or urethral opening or will take a urine sample and this will be analyzed by a lab test. You can make an appointment with Health Services or you can contact another testing site in Providence. Click here to see a listing of local STI test sites. If you choose to get tested at Health Services, you can ask your medical provider about testing costs and when you can expect your results back during your appointment.
How is it treated?
Chlamydia infections are usually treated with antibiotics. It is important to take the entire course of medication to make sure the infection is gone. If you are tested at Health Services, you can pick up your antibiotic prescription at the pharmacy.
If you find out that you are infected with chlamydia, you should also notify all of your recent sex partner(s) so that they can be treated, even if they don't have symptoms. This will reduce the risk of your partner(s) experiencing complications from an infection and will reduce your risk of being re-infected. You should not have sex until you complete your treatment, and your partner(s) are tested and complete their treatment.
Can chlamydia infections be dangerous?
Chlamydia infections can create serious health threats if gone undiagnosed and untreated, especially for women. In people with vaginas, chlamydia can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID can scar and block the fallopian tubes and prevent fertilized eggs from reaching the uterus. If fertilized eggs develop in the tubes, this is called an ectopic pregnancy -- a dangerous situation that requires emergency surgery.
In people with penises, chlamydia can cause sterility. It can spread from the urethra to the testicles where a condition called epididymitis (inflammation of a duct in the testicles) can develop. Also in people with penises, chlamydia can cause Reiter's syndrome -- a condition with symptoms including:
Lesions that form hard crusts on the penis
Ulcers in the mouth or throat