What is chlamydia?
Genital chlamydial infection is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the bacterium chlamydia trachomatis. It is the most common bacterial sexually transmitted infection in the UK. If untreated, it can cause serious complications.
Who gets chlamydia?
- Anyone who has sex can get genital chlamydial infection. The people at risk are those having unprotected sexual intercourse (i.e. not using condoms), especially those with more than one sexual partner and those who change sexual partners.
- Eye infection can occur in adults and in infants who are born to infected women.
- A large proportion of cases remained undiagnosed. Infection is not confined to those generally perceived to be at high risk of an STI.
- Chlamydia is most common in women aged 16-19 and men aged 20-24 years.
How do you catch chlamydia?
- Genital chlamydia is a sexually transmitted infection. It is caught through unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex or genital contact with an infected partner.
- An infected person will frequently have no symptoms of chlamydia; however, he or she can still infect a partner without knowing.
- Genital chlamydia cannot be caught by casual contact (toilet seats, swimming pools, saunas).
- Pregnant women can pass infection to infants during birth.
How do you know that you have chlamydia?
- Most people are unaware of their infection. Up to 50% of infected men and 70% of women are asymptomatic. A person may carry the infection, have no symptoms and be able to pass it on to any partner during that time.
- Women may experience:
- some unusual vaginal discharge
- bleeding between periods
- pain when passing urine
- lower abdominal pain.
- Men may experience:
- discharge from the penis
- burning and itching in the genital area
- pain when passing urine.
- Symptoms may persist but, in some cases, they may only last for a few days then disappear.
- If symptoms do occur, they start one to three weeks after becoming infected.
How serious is chlamydia?
- Chlamydia can have especially serious effects for women if left untreated.
- About one third of women with untreated chlamydia go on to develop pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). This occurs when the bacteria spread up from the vagina and cervix to damage the reproductive tubes leading to the ovaries. PID can also result from other infections but about 40% of PID cases are caused by genital chlamydial infection.
- PID is the dominant infectious cause of chronic pelvic pain, infertility and ectopic pregnancy (a pregnancy outside the womb).
- The consequences of PID are not easily treatable and can have lifelong implications for the individuals concerned.
- Complications are rarer in men, but untreated chlamydia can lead to pain and swelling around the testicles (a sign of inflammation of the male reproductive tubes (epididymitis)). This can occasionally cause male infertility.
- Men and women with genital chlamydial infection can also develop painful arthritis due to inflammation of the joints.
How can you protect yourself against chlamydia?
Sexually active men and women can reduce their risk of chlamydia by reducing the number of their sexual partners and by using condoms correctly and consistently during sexual intercourse.
How is chlamydia diagnosed?
- Usually, genital chlamydial infection is diagnosed by a swab taken from the penis or the cervix (at the top of the vagina), however, these tests can be performed on a urine sample.
- Testing for sexual infections is often best done in sexual health clinics (also called genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics), which have the equipment and facilities for testing and treating sexual partners.
- Clinics are completely confidential and will not inform GPs of any results, unless specifically requested to do so. You can attend one of these clinics at any age (even if you are under the age of consent to sex which is 16).
- Some GPs, family planning clinics and young people's sexual health clinics now also offer testing.
- A person with suspected chlamydia should also be tested for other sexually transmitted infections, which may be present without symptoms.
How is chlamydia treated?
- Once diagnosed, uncomplicated chlamydial infection is easy to treat and cure.
- There are a number of antibiotics which are used to treat chlamydial infection.
- All current and recent sexual partners of an infected person need to be tested and treated to prevent re-infection and further spread of disease. Partners need to be tested whether or not they show symptoms of infection and may be offered treatment whether or not a positive diagnosis is made.