Chlamydia is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis. When transmitted through sexual contact, the bacteria can infect the urinary and reproductive organs.
The term chlamydia typically refers to the STD Chlamydia trachomatis, although two other types of this bacteria also can lead to illness: Chlamydia pneumoniae, which can be spread through coughing and sneezing, and Chlamydia psittaci, which birds can pass to humans. This article refers specifically to the STD.
Chlamydia can be treated with antibiotics but often causes no symptoms, so someone can be infected without even knowing it. Untreated chlamydial infections can lead to more serious health problems, such as infertility, so it's important for sexually active teens to be screened for chlamydia at least yearly by a health care provider. It's also important for them to take the precautions to prevent chlamydia, and if it's suspected, to seek treatment as soon as possible.
In many cases, chlamydia causes only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. So an infection can last for weeks or months before it is discovered.
In females, chlamydia symptoms can include:
- vaginal irritation
- vaginal discharge
- lower abdominal pain
- burning feeling with urination
Untreated chlamydia also can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can affect the vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. In some cases, PID has no symptoms but often causes abdominal or lower back pain, painful urination, pain during intercourse, bleeding between menstrual periods, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, or fever.
If chlamydia or PID infections go untreated in females, they can lead to scarring of the fallopian tubes, which can lead to other serious health problems such as chronic pelvic pain, infertility, or ectopic (tubal) pregnancy.
Just like in females, chlamydia may be completely without symptoms in males. When present in males, chlamydia symptoms can include discharge from the tip of the penis and a burning feeling during urination. Untreated infections can lead to epididymitis, an inflammation of the coiled tubes in the back of the testicles. This can result in testicular swelling, pain, and even infertility.
Chlamydia is contagious. It can be transmitted through sexual contact, in semen and vaginal secretions.
Chlamydia does not spread through casual contact such as shaking hands or using the same toilet as someone who is infected. If someone is diagnosed with chlamydia, all of that person's sexual partners need to be notified and treated with antibiotics, even if they don't have any symptoms, so that they don't develop any long-term complications or spread the infection to others.
If detected early on, chlamydia can easily be treated with antibiotics and the symptoms alleviated within 7 to 10 days. If untreated, chlamydia can lead to serious complications that can appear months or even years after the person is infected.
The medications currently available effective treat chlamydia. However, once treated, a young person is encouraged to be screened for chlamydia again about 3 months after treatment. This is because up to 20% of young women are re-exposed to chlamydia and need to be treated again. The most common reason for exposure is a sexual partner who hasn't been adequately treated.
The sexual partners of anyone who has or is suspected of having chlamydia or any other STD should be examined and treated. Those diagnosed with any STD should inform their partners as soon as possible so that they can be examined and treated, prevent complications, and avoid spreading the infections to others.
Because chlamydia is spread through sexual contact, the best way to prevent it is to abstain from having sex. Sexual contact with more than one partner or with someone who has more than one partner increases the risk of contracting any STD.
Once sexual activity is part of a young person's life, it is important to be screened yearly for chlamydia by a medical provider. This is important whether or not symptoms of an infection are present.
In addition, when properly and consistently used, condoms decrease the risk of STDs, including chlamydia. Latex condoms provide greater protection than natural-membrane condoms. The female condom, made of polyurethane, is also considered effective against STDs.
Although birth control pills offer no protection against STDs, they may provide some protection against PID by causing the body to create thicker cervical mucus, making it more difficult for bacteria to reach the upper genital tract.
Using douche can actually increase a female's risk of contracting STDs because it can change the natural flora of the vagina and may flush bacteria higher into the genital tract.
A teen who is being treated for chlamydia also should be tested for other STDs, and should have time alone with the doctor to openly discuss issues like sexual activity. Not all teens will be comfortable talking with parents about these issues. But it's important to encourage them to talk to a trusted adult who can provide the facts.
If your teen is thinking of becoming sexually active or already has started having sex, it's important to talk about it. Make sure your teen knows how STDs can be spread (during anal, oral, or vaginal sex) and that they often don't have symptoms, so a partner might have an STD without knowing it.
It can be difficult to talk about STDs, but just as with any other medical issue, teens need this information to stay safe and healthy. Provide the facts, and let your child know where you stand.
It's also important that all teens have regular full physical exams — which can include screening for STDs. Your teen may want to see a gynecologist or a specialist in adolescent medicine to talk about sexual health issues. Community health organizations and sexual health centers in your area might be able to offer some guidance.
Reviewed by: Michele Van Vranken, MD
Date reviewed: November 2009