Chlamydia Symptoms: When to Contact a Doctor
In a 2015 report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that the US sees 20 million new cases of STDs every year. About half of those are from sexually active youths ages 15 to 24. By the age of 25, it’s estimated that half of all sexually active people will have had a sexually transmitted infection at some point. These STDs or STIs often can be transmitted through oral, anal, or vaginal sex and often do not show any symptoms. While many STDs are curable, many people who are infected might not even know until it is too late. One such STD that can have serious health repercussions is chlamydia.
What is Chlamydia?
Chlamydia is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that affects both women and men. It is a bacterial infection caused by the bacteria, chlamydia trachomatis. The bacteria aims for the mucous membranes, which are moist, soft tissues not covered by our outer layer of skin. Thus, when someone has the infection the bacteria can be found in the vagina, cervix, urethra, and rectum as well as the throat or eyes (the lining in the eyelid).
Chlamydia is the most common sexually transmitted bacterial infection in the US. Almost 3 million individuals in the US are infected with chlamydia every year with it being most common for those ages 14 to 24. It is estimated that as many as 10% of adolescent women have chlamydia.
How do You Get Chlamydia?
Chlamydia is a STD, meaning it is transmitted by having oral, anal, or vaginal sex with a person who already has chlamydia. The infection is spread through semen and vaginal fluids, but the transmission of the disease is not dependent on ejaculation. While the infection comes from these fluids, it can infect the eyes and throat in addition to the vagina, cervix, penis, urethra, and anus. Anyone can get chlamydia, even if they have been diagnosed and treated for chlamydia before. Additionally, women who are pregnant can pass chlamydia onto their baby during birth. This can result in the baby having pneumonia, an eye infection, or even blindness.
Since these fluids are required to transmit the bacteria that causes chlamydia, you cannot get chlamydia through casual contact. For example, it is not possible to get chlamydia from kissing, holding hands, hugging, sneezing, sitting on a toilet, or sharing food.
Certain traits do increase your likelihood of contracting chlamydia:
- Engaging with multiple sexual partners in one year – The more partners who engage with, the more likely you will be exposed to an infected person and contract a STD.
- Having unprotected sex – Condoms can reduce the likelihood of you contracting a STD; however, condoms are never 100% effective. If you are concerned you may have a STD, you should get tested regardless of whether you used a condom in your last sexual encounter.
- Younger than 24 – Individuals younger than 24 tend to practice unprotected sex more often than other age groups and are less likely to be tested.
- Previous diagnosis of a STD – Having already contracted a STD increases your body’s susceptibility to contracting another STD. It can be common for those who have contracted chlamydia to be at risk for contracting gonorrhea or HIV.
Common Symptoms of Chlamydia
It is common for someone with chlamydia to have no symptoms. In fact, 75% of women and 50% of men with chlamydia exhibit no symptoms. The key signs of chlamydia can appear within one week or up to three weeks after having sex with a partner with chlamydia. Even with no symptoms, it is still possible to transmit the disease and damage the reproductive system.
There are some differences in how chlamydia presents in men vs women. In general, the most common reported symptoms in both men and women are:
- Chlamydia discharge – For women, this includes abnormal discharge from the vagina that may have a strong odor and be yellowish. For men, this can vary greatly, but may be cloudy or clear discharge around the tip of the penis.
- Burning sensation while urinating – Also called dysuria, this symptom is common with other STDs and is an important sign to get tested.
- Burning or itching around the vagina or penis – For women, this burning or itching may also be inside the vagina, and for men, this is usually around the penial opening.
Women can also have painful periods, bleeding between periods, pain during sex, abdominal pain, or a fever. Men can also have a less common symptom of swelling or pain in either or both testicles. Chlamydia can spread or infect the anus causing:
- Rectal pain
While rare, chlamydia can infect your eyes, causing itching, redness, or discharge, or your throat, causing soreness.
Gonorrhea and Chlamydia: Understanding the Differences
After chlamydia, gonorrhea is the second most common STD. Gonorrhea, also called the “clap,” is caused by bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which produces an infection in the mucus membranes. Like chlamydia, gonorrhea bacteria can grow and infect women in the cervix, uterus, or fallopian tubes and in men, in the urethra. It can also infect the anus, mouth, and throat. Additionally, just like chlamydia, gonorrhea can pass onto newborns during childbirth if the mother is infected and remains untreated. The same risk factors, like having unprotected sex, having multiple sexual partners in a given time frame, and being between the ages of 14 and 24, apply to gonorrhea.
Once infected, gonorrhea can begin to show symptoms in one to two weeks or even after one month. Gonorrhea, like chlamydia produces very similar symptoms:
- Discharge – This discharge can be white or greenish yellow from the vagina or penis.
- Burning sensation while urinating – This occurs in both men and women.
- Pain or swollen sexual organs – For men, this originates in the testicles and for women this is in the pelvis and vulva.
Similar to chlamydia, gonorrhea can exhibit no symptoms in some people or very mild symptoms. This often leads women to believe they have a yeast infection and self-treat with over the counter medication. Thus, it is important to consult a doctor to ensure you receive a proper diagnosis and treatment. Gonorrhea and chlamydia are both diagnosed with a swab of the infected area and treated with antibiotics. These bacterial infections, chlamydia and gonorrhea, can also occur at the same time, so it is important to be tested for both.
Complications from Chlamydia & Their Symptoms
Chlamydia often has no symptoms, therefore some people go untreated. Even with those who have symptoms; stigma, access, or other reasons get in the way of getting medical attention. Not receiving prompt and proper treatment can create serious health problems.
For women, chlamydia that goes untreated can spread through your uterus to your fallopian tubes. Fallopian tubes connect the ovaries to the uterus and transport fertilized eggs during pregnancy. If untreated chlamydia spreads to this area, the result is pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), affecting around 5% of women in the US.
Pelvic inflammatory disease, similar to chlamydia, can have no symptoms or just some pelvic or abdominal pain initially. Unfortunately, PID can do permanent damage to a women’s reproductive system, including:
- Long-term pelvic pain – PID can damage the fallopian tubes or other areas of the reproductive system inflaming them and causing chronic pelvic pain.
- Infertility – As the infection spreads through the fallopian tubes, the damage can cause scars that prevent any sperm from reaching an egg.
- Ectopic pregnancy – Sometimes, the sperm is able to get through and fertilize an egg, but the same damage and scarring can prevent the fertilized egg from reaching the uterus. This fertilized egg can implant in the fallopian tubes or elsewhere. Since these other areas are not designed to expand as the egg goes, they can rupture. This causes massive internal bleeding and even death. It is extremely important to call a doctor immediately if you experience any symptoms such as heavy vaginal bleeding, dizziness, or shoulder pain.
- Premature birth – Even with the damage caused by the disease, it is still possible to conceive a child. Sometimes, PID can result in the birth occurring before the due date, which can risk the health and development of the child.
For men, chlamydia rarely leads to health problems. It is very rare for chlamydia to cause infertility in men, but sometimes the infection can spread past the penis causing fever or pain. In addition, it is possible for chlamydia to cause:
- Nongonococcal urethritis – This is an infection of the urethra, the tube that carries urine, which causes inflammation, pain, and fever.
- Epididymitis – This occurs when the epididymis is infected, the tube beside the testicle that carries sperm, which causes inflammation, scrotal pain, and fever.
- Proctitis – This results in inflammation of the rectum.
- Prostate gland infection – This is an infection of the prostate gland, which can cause fever, pain during sex or while urinating, and pain in the lower back.
When to Contact a Doctor
If you have any of the symptoms described, you should go see a doctor. In general, if you are sexually active and have any usual discharge, burning sensations, or pain while having sex; you may have a STD and should get tested.
Additionally, if you are a woman, you should contact a doctor immediately if you have any of the following symptoms, as they can be a sign of a serious complication of chlamydia called pelvic inflammatory disease:
- Fainting or signs of shock
- Serious lower abdominal pain
- Temperature that is higher than 101 F
Should any of these symptoms arise or if you suspect you may have a STD, it is very important to get tested. Even if you have no symptoms, as do the vast majority of those with chlamydia but are sexually active, you should be getting tested regularly so you do not unknowingly spread the disease. You can make an appointment with your primary care physician or see an urgent care in order to be tested and receive treatment.