Chlamydia: Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Sameer Hassamal, MDPatricia Pinto-Garcia, MD, MPH
Published on November 19, 2021

Key takeaways:

  • Chlamydia is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the U.S.

  • Chlamydia can cause health complications, including infertility.

  • Fortunately, chlamydia is completely curable with antibiotics.

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Chlamydia is a very common sexually transmitted infection (STI) that affects both males and females. Chlamydia is particularly common among sexually active people between 18 and 29 years old. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 out of every 20 sexually active females between 14 and 24 years old has chlamydia.

Chlamydia can cause serious health problems — including infertility — so early treatment is important. But how do you know if you need a chlamydia test or treatment? Let’s take a look at some facts about chlamydia and what you can do to avoid getting it and passing it to others. 

What causes chlamydia?

Chlamydia is an infection caused by a bacteria called Chlamydia trachomatis. Chlamydia bacteria lives in bodily fluids like vaginal fluid and semen. When someone comes in contact with these fluids, they can get chlamydia. You can come in contact with these fluids through:

  • Vaginal sex

  • Anal sex

  • Oral sex 

Chlamydia is not spread through kissing, hugging, or sharing utensils.

What are the symptoms of chlamydia?

Chlamydia is called a “silent infection” because people often don’t realize they have it. Studies show that:

  • 90% of males with chlamydia never have symptoms

  • 70% to 95% of females with chlamydia never have symptoms

When chlamydia does cause symptoms, people can experience:

  • Urethritis: discharge, pain, or burning with urination

  • Proctitis: bloody stool, anal or rectal pain, and constipation

  • Conjunctivitis: eye redness and watery discharge

  • Pharyngitis: sore throat and pain with swallowing

  • Genital lymphogranuloma venereum: large, swollen, and painful lymph nodes

  • Reactive arthritis triad: pain, swelling, and stiffness of the joints

How do the symptoms of chlamydia differ between males and females?

Both males and females can have the symptoms described above.

In addition, females can also have:

  • Cervicitis: Cervicitis is when chlamydia infects the cervix. This can cause vaginal discharge, burning with urination, pain with sex, and heavy menstrual bleeding. 

And males can also have:

  • Epididymitis: Epididymitis causes testicular pain and redness, usually only on one side. 

  • Prostatitis: Prostatitis happens when chlamydia infects the prostate. This can cause pain with urination and ejaculation as well as pelvic pain. 

How long does it take for the symptoms of chlamydia to appear? 

Symptoms usually start 1 to 3 weeks after exposure to chlamydia — if they develop at all. Some people develop symptoms several weeks to months after exposure.

People who never feel sick can still pass chlamydia to other people during sex. 

How is chlamydia diagnosed and treated?

A healthcare provider can check your urine sample for chlamydia. Alternatively, they can use a swab that looks like a Q-tip to send a sample from your vagina or urethra. You can also collect one of these samples yourself at home using a home test STI kit.

If you test positive for chlamydia — don’t panic. Chlamydia is completely curable with antibiotics. Your healthcare provider will likely prescribe one of the following:

If you need treatment for chlamydia, make sure to get retested 3 months after finishing your antibiotics. This will make sure that the antibiotics worked.

What can happen if chlamydia goes untreated?

Untreated chlamydia infections can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in females.

PID causes damage to reproductive organs. Females who have PID may develop: 

  • Infertility (inability to become pregnant)

  • Ectopic pregnancy 

  • Tubo-ovarian abscess (a collection of pus in the fallopian tubes and/or ovaries)

  • Chronic pelvic pain

People who never have chlamydia symptoms can still get these complications.

How long is chlamydia contagious?

It can take up to 7 days for the antibiotics to kill all the chlamydia bacteria. Once you finish antibiotics, avoid any kind of sex for a week.

It is possible to get chlamydia more than once. So make sure your partner is treated too — that way you won’t pass it to each other. 

How can I protect myself against chlamydia?

There’s a lot you can do to keep yourself safe from chlamydia while sexually active:

  • Get tested for chlamydia at least once a year. Since most people with chlamydia don’t have symptoms, the CDC recommends that sexually active people get tested regularly. 

  • Use barrier protection for all sexual activity. Barriers, like condoms, keep chlamydia from being passed from person to person. Chlamydia can be passed in all bodily fluids, so make sure to use condoms during all types of sexual activity.

  • Make sure your partner gets tested. Have an honest conversation with your partner(s) — encourage them to get tested for chlamydia. This will help protect you and will also keep them safe from chlamydia complications

  • Take all your antibiotics. If you get diagnosed with chlamydia — make sure you finish all the antibiotics prescribed, even if you feel healthy and don’t have any symptoms. 

The bottom line

Chlamydia is very common, especially in sexually active people between 18 and 29 years old. Most people with chlamydia don’t have any symptoms, but they can still get complications and pass the bacteria to others. Fortunately, antibiotics can cure chlamydia. If you are sexually active, use barrier methods and get tested for chlamydia regularly to keep yourself safe. 

References

American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. (2018). Tubal ectopic pregnancy.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Chlamydia – CDC fact sheet (detailed).

View All References (6)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Chlamydia treatment and care.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Sexually transmitted infections treatment guidelines, 2021.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Chlamydia – CDC fact sheet.

de Voux, A., et al. (2016). Notes from the field: Cluster of lymphogranuloma venereum cases among men who have sex with men. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Papp, J. R., et al.. (2014). Recommendations for the laboratory-based detection of Chlamydia trachomatis and Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Planned Parenthood. (n.d.). Chlamydia.

GoodRx Health has strict sourcing policies and relies on primary sources such as medical organizations, governmental agencies, academic institutions, and peer-reviewed scientific journals. Learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate, thorough, and unbiased by reading our editorial guidelines.

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