Chlamydia - signs, tests and treatment

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are at a record high in the UK according to the latest official figures. One of the most common, chlamydia affects up to one in ten sexually active young people (most instances are in people aged 24 or younger, though it can affect all ages) with a new case being diagnosed every five minutes.

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Known as the 'silent infection' most people don't experience any obvious signs or symptoms, or they're so mild they go unnoticed. Although easy to treat with antibiotics, if left untreated chlamydia can cause a range of long-term health problems including infertility.

Causes of chlamydia
Men and women can get chlamydia, which is passed from person to person during unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex - or by sharing sex toys. A bacterial infection which is found in semen and vaginal fluids, it can live inside cells of the cervix, urethra, rectum and sometimes in the throat and eyes. Chlamydia can also be passed from a pregnant woman to her baby.

Symptoms of chlamydia
It takes around three weeks for symptoms (should you experience any) to appear after coming into contact with chlamydia – but it may be many months until the infection spreads to other parts of your body that you notice a problem.

For women, symptoms can include an unusual vaginal discharge, bleeding between periods or during or after sex, pain during sex or while passing urine and pains in the lower abdomen.
For men, symptoms can include a white/cloudy, watery discharge from the tip of the penis and pain when passing urine or painful testicles.

Should the infection appear in the eye or rectum, you may experience discomfort, pain or discharge. Chlamydia in the throat is uncommon and usually has no symptoms.

Testing for chlamydia
If you experience any of the signs above, or think you may have come into contact with someone with chlamydia, it's important to get tested as soon as possible. The NHS offers free testing at genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics across the country.

Free testing is also available at sexual health clinics, many contraception clinics and via your GP. You can also purchase a testing kit, available by post, though the accuracy of such tests may vary, so it's advisable to seek advice from a pharmacist or your GP.

The test is quick and painless and can be done as a urine test or a swab passed over the vagina or urethra to take sample cells. If you've had anal or oral sex, a swab will be taken from the rectum or throat. If you have symptoms of conjunctivitis (discharge from the eye), your eyes will be tested.

Treatments for chlamydia
While it may be difficult to spot, thankfully chlamydia is easy to treat. Your doctor will prescribe either a single dose or longer course of antibiotics. If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, tell your GP, as this may affect the type of antibiotics you're given.

You should ensure that any sexual partners seek treatment too to prevent reinfection. If left untreated, the infection can spread to other parts of the body causing long-term health problems, including infertility.

In women, chlamydia can cause pelvic inflammatory disease which can lead to ectopic pregnancy (when a pregnancy develops outside the womb), blocked fallopian tubes and long-term pelvic pain.

In men, chlamydia can lead to painful infection in the testicles and may also result in reduced fertility. On rare occasions, chlamydia can lead to reactive arthritis - an inflammation of the joints affecting both men and women.

For more information on chlamydia visit the NHS Choices website or speak to your GP.