One of the best ways to avoid getting an STD or STI — besides practicing safe sex, of course — is to educate yourself on the different types of diseases and infections. The more you understand them, the better prepared you are to safeguard yourself against contracting them. Without a doubt, one of the most prevalent sexually transmitted diseases you can get is chlamydia. But what is chlamydia? How do you get it, and how do you know you have it? And can it be treated?
If you’ve been diagnosed with chlamydia in the past, or suspect you have chlamydia now, rest assured that according to the Office on Women’s Health, chlamydia is the most commonly reported STD in the United States. In fact, there were about 1.7 million cases of this disease reported in the U.S. in 2017. Women between the ages of 15 and 24 actually accounted for almost half of those cases. And young women are at risk for the most serious potential consequences from this STD when it goes undiagnosed (more on that later).
Dr. Patricia Elliott, Clinical Assistant Professor of Community Health Sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health, defines chlamydia as a bacterial infection which can be spread through vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Some of the most common symptoms of chlamydia are burning while urinating, bleeding between periods, pain during sex, fever, low abdominal or back pain, and unusual vaginal discharge. However, the important thing to know about chlamydia is that it is often a “silent infection.” According to Dr. Elliott explains, around 80 percent of people who have chlamydia experience no symptoms. And if you do experience symptoms, it may take several weeks after you contract the infection for them to appear. Chlamydia can actually be passed from a pregnant woman to her baby during vaginal birth, which can lead to infant pneumonia or eye infection (why is why it’s important to get tested during pregnancy, too).
“Just because it doesn’t have symptoms doesn’t mean it isn’t causing harm to your body,” she tells Elite Daily. “People with chlamydia are at higher risk for fertility issues, pregnancy complications, and acquiring other sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.”
Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, OB/GYN at at Yale-New Haven Hospital and clinical professor at Yale University School of Medicine, adds that when chlamydia is left untreated, it can lead to pelvic infections, and can cause not only discomfort and pain but also scarring to the fallopian tubes (thus negatively impacting fertility). It can also cause cervicitis in women, and proctitis and urethritis in men. According to Dr. Hunter Handsfield, Professor Emeritus of Medicine at the University of Washington Center for AIDS and STD, infertility is a much higher risk after a second or third chlamydial infection, but can can also be a risk after just one infection if it's left untreated.
“Within days, many chlamydial infections in women have extended into the uterus and perhaps fallopian tubes,” explains Dr. Handsfield. “Usually, this causes no symptoms, but symptoms signifying pelvic inflammatory disease could start a few days after acquiring the infection, or not for several weeks or months."
Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is an infection of the female reproductive organs, which is often caused by certain STDs. According to the CDC, the symptoms of PID include fever, pain in the lower abdomen, pain during sex, bleeding between periods, unusual vaginal discharge, and a burning sensation when you pee. Not all people with PID experience symptoms, so it is possible to have the infection and not realize it. Unfortunately, there are no tests to detect PID — your doctor can diagnose it based on other tests and physical examinations. It can be treated with antibiotics, but the treatment won’t reverse any of the damage already done. The important thing, of course, is diagnosing it early, as it can cause permanent harm to the reproductive organs when it goes untreated.
This is why Dr. Minkin and Dr. Elliott both advise getting tested for STDs once every year if you’re sexually active.
“If we find chlamydia, we can treat it and hopefully avoid the consequences,” adds Dr. Minkin.
And if your primary care doctor isn’t asking about testing, it's time to take charge and bring it up yourself. Dr. Elliott recommends being open and honest with your doctor about your sexual health.
“Don’t assume your doctor is automatically doing it,” explains Dr. Elliott. “Ask your provider every year so you can get your test — and your peace of mind.”
Your doctor can test you for chlamydia via a vaginal swab (such as during a pap smear) or a urine sample. The good news? Treatment for chlamydia is remarkably simple and effective. Dr. Elliott notes that all it typically takes is one course of antibiotics (prescribed by your doctor) to clear the infection up. You will need to inform your current sexual partner that you have chlamydia, as they will also need to be treated at the same time to ensure that you don’t get re-infected. If you feel nervous about sharing this news, keep in mind that a supportive partner will never express judgment or contribute to any unnecessary shame around contracting this STD. If they aren't supportive, you may want to take a step back and consider whether your current relationship is good for your emotional well-being. Try telling your partner how their reaction has affected you. And be sure to lean on supportive friends and family members, who can provide you with the reassurance, love, and acceptance you deserve.
It’s super important to wait until you’ve finished the course of antibiotics until you have sex again, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If your doctor prescribes a single dose, you should wait about a week before resuming sex, and if your doctor prescribes a full week of antibiotics, then you should wait until you’ve completed all doses. Be sure to confirm your treatment plan with your doctor and following all of their instructions. The CDC reports that with chlamydia, repeat infections are relatively common — which is why it’s crucial to get re-tested around three months after you’re treated for it.
Since chlamydia is spread through sexual fluids, Dr. Minkin and Dr. Elliott agree that the best way to protect yourself is to use a barrier method, like condoms or female condoms, during intercourse of any kind. Since you can get chlamydia from oral sex, you may want to use dental dams to be safe.
If you find out you have chlamydia, or suspect you do, don't panic. Remember: chlamydia is incredibly common and is nothing to be ashamed of. Anyone — no matter how many partners they’ve had — can contract this STD via unprotected sex. And fortunately, the antibiotic treatment for chlamydia is super affordable and simple. Still, doctors agree that the best thing you can do is to use a barrier method during sex and get tested annually. The sooner you can detect this STD, the faster you can treat it — which is extremely important when it comes to avoiding any harmful effects.