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What is Chlamydia?
Chlamydia, often misspelt Clamidia, is one of the most commonly reported bacterial sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Global chlamydia statistics show that an estimated 92 million new chlamydia infections occur each year, affecting more women (50 million) than men (42 million).
Chlamydia is caused by the bacterium chlamydia trachomatis. This bacteria can infect the cervix in women and the urethra and rectum in both men and women. Occasionally chlamydia can also affect other parts of the body, including the throat and eyes.
Chlamydia often has no symptoms, especially among women. If left untreated, chlamydia can cause serious problems later in life.
Chlamydia symptoms and signs
Chlamydia symptoms usually appear between 1 and 3 weeks after exposure but may not emerge until much later. Chlamydia is known as the ‘silent’ disease as in many people it produces no symptoms. It is estimated that 70-75% of women infected with chlamydia are asymptomatic (have no symptoms) and a significant proportion of men also have no symptoms. Those who do have symptoms of chlamydia may experience:
- An increase in vaginal discharge caused by an inflamed cervix;
- the need to urinate more frequently, or pain whilst passing urine;
- pain during sexual intercourse or bleeding after sex;
- lower abdominal pains;
- irregular menstrual bleeding.
- A white/cloudy and watery discharge from the penis that may stain underwear;
- a burning sensation and/or pain when passing urine;
- pain and swelling in the testicles.
- Men are more likely to notice chlamydia symptoms than women, though they too may be asymptomatic.
In both men and women a chlamydia infection in the rectum will rarely cause symptoms.
How is chlamydia passed on?
Chlamydia can be transmitted:
- By having unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who is infected;
- from a mother to her baby during vaginal childbirth;
- by transferring the infection on fingers from the genitals to the eyes, although it is rare for this to happen.
"I think I may have chlamydia..."
If you have any symptoms or are worried you may have been infected with chlamydia, there are a number of places you can go for help.
- You can visit your doctor, who may be able to test you for chlamydia. If they do not have the facilities to do this, they will probably be able to refer you to a place where you can get tested.
- Some countries also have specific sexual health clinics that can help you directly.
- In some countries, local pharmacies and chemists may offer chlamydia testing kits that allow a person to take a sample themselves for analysis by the pharmacy.
Chlamydia testing is the only way to find out for certain whether a person is infected.
A woman can provide a urine sample, which is sent to a laboratory for testing. Alternatively a swab can be taken from the vagina (either by a doctor or nurse, or by the woman herself) that is sent to a laboratory. Results for the chlamydia test are usually available within one week, though this may vary depending on location.
For men, either a urine sample is taken, or a swab is taken from the opening of the urethra at the tip of the penis. Many testing sites now just take a urine sample. This is an easier and less painful procedure, but is slightly less reliable than a swab.
A modern 'rapid' urine test for men has also been developed, which provides the results within the hour and eliminates the need for laboratory testing.
Treatment of chlamydia
The treatment of chlamydia is simple and effective once the infection has been diagnosed. It consists of a short course of antibiotic tablets, which if taken correctly, can be more than 95 percent effective.
If a patient is allergic to any antibiotics, or if there is a possibility they may be pregnant, it is important that the doctor is informed as this may affect which antibiotics are prescribed. Treatment must not be interrupted once a course of antibiotics has been started, otherwise it may be necessary to start again from the beginning.
The doctor or health advisor will discuss the chlamydia infection and answer any questions. They will also ask about any partners the patient has had sexual contact with in the past six months, as they may also have chlamydia and will need to get tested.
It is important that the patient returns for a check-up once the treatment has been completed to make sure they have no recurring infection. The patient should not have penetrative sex until they have received a negative test result following the check-up.
Complications of chlamydia
If chlamydia is left undiagnosed and untreated it can cause serious health problems. Early diagnosis and treatment means that chlamydial infection can be easily cleared up, but if left unchecked it can lead to:
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) - an infection of the uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes. PID increases the future risk of ectopic pregnancy (a pregnancy outside the womb) or premature birth. If the fallopian tubes are scarred, it can also lead to problems with fertility.
- Cervicitis - an inflammation of the cervix. Symptoms include a yellowish vaginal discharge and pain during sex. In long-term cervicitis the cervix becomes very inflammed and cysts can develop and become infected. This can lead to deep pelvic pain and backache.
- Epididymitis - painful inflammation of the tube system that is part of the testicles, which can lead to infertility.
- Urethritis - inflammation of the urine tube (urethra), causing a yellow or clear pus-like discharge to collect at the tip of the penis. Left untreated it can lead to a narrowing of the urethra, which can affect the ability to urinate easily and can potentially cause kidney problems.
- Reactive arthritis - symptoms include inflammation of the joints, urethra and eyes.
- Complications of chlamydia are less common in men than women.
If a pregnant woman has untreated chlamydia, the infection can potentially be passed on to a baby during pregnancy, giving it an eye or lung infection. Chlamydia can be safely treated during pregnancy provided the correct antibiotics are prescribed.
Using condoms greatly reduces the risk of chlamydia being passed on during sex. Getting tested for STDs at a sexual health clinic, and encouraging new partners to get tested before having sexual intercourse, also helps to prevent transmission.
If you think you may have any of the symptoms listed above then having a chlamydia test is highly recommended. Visit the nearest GUM (genitourinary medicine) clinic, sexual health clinic or doctor as soon as possible to avoid complications. In countries such as the USA and UK, all pregnant women are offered a test for STDs such as chlamydia, and it is recommended that all sexually active women under the age of 25 get screened for STDs at least once a year.