What causes chlamydia?
Chlamydia is caused by a bacterium called chlamydia trachomatis. This bacteria transfers from one person to another through unprotected sex or contact with infected vaginal fluids or semen. So you can contract chlamydia even if there’s no penetrative sex. The infection spreads inside the body when the infected cells multiply.
The infection isn’t limited to the genital area. Women can get chlamydia in the cervix, rectum, or throat, and men can get it in the urethra (inside of the penis), rectum, or throat. And if you’ve had chlamydia in the past and received treatment for it, you can still get re-infected should you have unprotected sex with someone who has it. There’s also the possibility of transmitting the infection to your baby during childbirth.
What are the symptoms of chlamydia?
Chlamydia can be a silent condition, meaning that you can be a carrier of the infection without showing or feeling any symptoms. This happens in many cases, so there’s a chance that you may have unprotected sex with someone who carries chlamydia without them being aware of it. So the safest route is to wear a condom and get regularly tested.
If you do get chlamydia symptoms, they will usually appear anywhere between one and three weeks after having unprotected sex or contact with genital fluids with someone who’s infected. But it may also take months for you to develop any symptoms.
Sometimes symptoms may clear up after a couple of days, but that doesn’t mean that the bacteria are gone from your system. You can still have chlamydia and pass it on to sexual partners unless you get treatment.
At least 70% of women carrying the chlamydia bacteria don’t have any symptoms or they’re so subtle that the carrier doesn’t notice them. If you do get symptoms, they may include:
- pain when you urinate
- abdominal pain that could be mistaken for menstrual cramps
- pain during or after sex
- unusual vaginal discharge (this can be a strange smell, consistency, or colour)
- bleeding right after sex, or during
- bleeding between periods, whether it’s heavy or light spotting
At least 50% of men with chlamydia have no clear symptoms. But if they do get symptoms, they might include:
- pain when you urinate
- white, cloudy, or watery discharge from the tip of your penis
- testicular pain
- a burning sensation or itching in the urethra
If you experience any of these symptoms but haven’t had unprotected sex in a while, it’s better to get tested anyway because you might have been carrying the infection and only just became symptomatic.
Can chlamydia lead to other problems?
Yes. Although chlamydia is easy to treat when it’s diagnosed early on, if you don’t get help as soon as possible it can lead to complications.
For women, untreated chlamydia can spread to the womb and cause pelvic inflammatory disease, a very serious condition that can lead to lifelong infertility or ectopic pregnancies.
In men, chlamydia can cause serious swelling in the testicles and in the epididymis (the tubes that carry sperm from the testicles) and this can have a long term impact on fertility.
If you have unprotected anal sex, chlamydia can also infect the rectum and cause general discomfort, itching, a burning sensation, and rectal discharge. It can also affect the throat if you have unprotected oral sex, and the eyes if any infected semen or vaginal fluid comes into contact with them.