Chlamydia is estimated to affect up to one in ten sexually active young people, making it the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United Kingdom. Over 200,000 people tested positive for the infection in 2012 and 64% of these were less than 25 years old. Despite these high statistics, it is very easy to cure completely with a simple antibiotic treatment.
Unfortunately, as the symptoms aren't easily recognisable many people don't realise they have it and it can often be left untreated for years and passed on to other people. Additionally, without treatment it can cause serious complications such as infertility.
How do you get Chlamydia?
Chlamydia is caused by chlamydia trachomatis bacteria, which are found in the semen or vaginal fluids of infected men and women. These bacteria can be passed on through genital contact and unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex. A pregnant woman with the infection can also pass it on to the infant when she gives birth.
You only need to come into sexual contact with one infected person to get Chlamydia – it doesn't matter how many partners you have. This is why it is a good idea to always use protection (i.e. condoms), particularly with new partners who may not know if they have an infection.
Casual contact like sharing toilet seats, swimming pools or saunas will not cause the transfer of the infection.
What are the symptoms of Chlamydia?
It is estimated that 50% of men and 75% of women with Chlamydia don't actually experience any symptoms at all. It is important to be aware of the possible symptoms, especially if you are at risk of infection due to having unprotected sex with someone who may be infected, whether they are aware of it or not.
For women with symptoms, they may include:
Unusual vaginal discharge (due to cervix inflammation)
Bleeding between periods
Pain or burning when passing urine
Lower back and abdomen pain, particularly during sex
For men with symptoms, they may include:
Discharge from penis
Pain or burning when passing urine
Burning or itching in genital area, particular at end of penis
For the people that do notice the symptoms, they usually occur one to three weeks after becoming infected. For some they last a short duration of time – a few days and then disappear – whilst for others they can persist indefinitely.
How do you know if you have Chlamydia?
As many people with Chlamydia don't have any symptoms, it can be difficult to know if you have the infection. In addition, partners with whom you have unprotected sex may have the infection and unknowingly pass it on to you.
The only way to really know if you are infected is to take a test. For women, this involves a swab from the cervix (the neck of the womb, where the infection takes hold) and for men from the urethra (the pipe that urine passes through). Alternatively, there is also a urine test that can determine if you have chlamydia.
Even these tests aren't 100% accurate, so if you are experiencing symptoms or know you've been in contact with an infected person, it is a good idea to be treated regardless.
Why do you need treatment?
The question many people want to know is why we need treatment if we don't experience any symptoms. The answer is in the long-term effects a chlamydia infection can have on your body if it is left untreated.
For women, there are several severe complications including:
Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and associated pain
Increased chance of ectopic pregnancy
Blocked fallopian tubes and infertility.
Reiter's syndrome (arthritis)
For pregnant women, the baby can be affected by conjunctivitis or neonatal pneumonia, which are both treatable but best avoided.
For men, complications are rarer but may include:
Epididymitis (testicle swelling and pain)
Reiter's syndrome (arthritis)
Testicle infection and reduced fertility
Given the serious nature of the complications – particularly the infertility associated with the infection of females – it is absolutely essential that you seek treatment if you suspect you may have Chlamydia. This is particularly important as you could pass the infection on to other people you have sexual relations with in the future.
How is Chlamydia treated?
The most important thing about the treatment of Chlamydia is to begin treatment as soon as possible. The sooner you can clear the infection the less chance you will have of experiencing symptoms and complications.
The most common treatment is a single dose of the antibiotic azithromycin. It is a very effective treatment and takes about one week to completely clear the infection, with no need for follow-up tests to confirm it has worked. In the week for treatment to work you should make sure to use adequate protection to avoid passing the bacteria on to other sexual partners.
Chlamydia is unlikely to go away without treatment and the risk of complications with a longer infection time recommends the use of treatment as soon as possible.
Does your partner need to be treated?
Yes. It is absolutely essential that your partner is treated to prevent the spread of infection back to you or to other people.
Additionally, it is possible that other sexual partners you have had in the past may be infected with Chlamydia. All sexual partners in the last six months (or your most recent partner if you haven't had sex in six months) should be contacted and tested for infection.
If you'd prefer not to contact your partners from previous relationships, the staff at your local genito-urinary medicine (GUM) clinic can assist by contacting them anonymously. This is to help identify and treat anyone who may have the infection to reduce the spread of Chlamydia in the future.
Why should you treat Chlamydia?
Even though you may not experience any symptoms with a Chlamydia infection it is important for it to be treated to prevent serious complications in the future and to stop the spread of infection to other people.
The treatment with a single dose of antibiotics is simple and effective, so Chlamydia doesn't need to be a sexually transmitted infection that has a big impact on your life.
Awareness and willingness to test and treat is all it takes to prevent life changing complications like infertility.
Side Effects of Azithromycin Chlamydia Treatment
Common side effects include:
feeling sick (nausea)
loose wind (flatulence).
Doxycycline is an alternative anti-biotic which is equally effective but less convenient as it needs to be taken
over the course of seven days.
Patient Information Leaflet
Always read the patient information leaflet before commencing treatment.
Patient information can be found here.