Know the Symptoms of Chlamydia and How It Is Diagnosed
Chlamydia is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in the world. Despite its prevalence, chlamydia is wrought with stigma, embarrassment and shame. Sometimes these residual feelings can keep people from seeing a doctor and getting diagnosed.
And yet early detection is crucial because unchecked chlamydia can cause serious consequences.
If you experience shame when getting screened for STDs, you should know you're not alone. STDs and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are common for people who have sex (i.e., most people), and taking charge of your sexual health is an important component of keeping your overall health in top shape.
Understanding more about a condition may help to keep the shame at bay. So let's dive into the symptoms and diagnosis of chlamydia.
Signs and symptoms
Here are some important facts to get started:
- Chlamydia predominantly affects young women, but it's important to understand that it can (and does) affect everyone.
- Not all chlamydia cases present symptoms, which is why regular screening is so vital.
- It's very treatable, but unchecked chlamydia can have serious negative health consequences.
Most early cases of chlamydia display no symptoms. And when symptoms do occur, they are often minor and easy to ignore, so it's crucial to consistently check yourself for any new or unexplained symptoms, even if they seem too insignificant to address.
Symptoms vary by sex, with some crossover. Common symptoms of chlamydia in men include:
- Painful urination
- White, cloudy or watery penis discharge
- Genital ulcers
- Testicular pain
Common symptoms for women include:
- Bleeding/spotting between periods
- Genital ulcers
- Lower stomach pain
- Painful urination
- Painful penetrative sex
- Unusual vaginal discharge
In rare cases, people may experience a sore throat, upper abdominal pain or arthritis.
You can also get chlamydia in your rectum if you engage in anal sex. In those cases, symptoms can include anal discharge, bleeding and pain.
The infection can also spread to your eyes if you rub or touch your eyes after touching fluids containing the bacteria. If your eyes do get infected, you may suffer from eye discharge, redness, skin discoloration and itchiness.
When to seek help
It can be difficult to know when to get help for chlamydia because so many cases result in no symptoms. Therefore, regular screening is crucial in detecting chlamydia early.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), screening guidelines are:
- Sexually active women who are younger than 25 should be screened for chlamydia at least once a year.
- Sexually active women who are 25 or older and engaging in sex with new or multiple partners should be screened for chlamydia at least once a year.
- Pregnant people should be tested early in pregnancy.
- Men who have sex with other men should be screened for chlamydia at least once a year.
- Anyone who has frequent sex with multiple or new partners should be tested for chlamydia (and other STDs) every few months.
While these are general guidelines, you should talk to your doctor about your specific situation to see what they recommend, especially as certain risk factors may require more frequent testing.
"There are a number of different risk factors for getting chlamydia," said Kate Tulenko, M.D., M.P.H., former director of the U.S. government's global health workforce project and current CEO and founder of Corvus Health, a global health systems and health workforce services firm based in Alexandria, Virginia.
These risk factors include regular unprotected sex, multiple sex partners and rough sex, among others, according to Tulenko.
"People who engage in high-risk behaviors should discuss with their physician the possibility of getting tested regularly for STIs," she said.
If you are experiencing symptoms, the time to get tested is now. Schedule the soonest appointment and undergo a full STD panel to determine the cause.
As far as where to get tested, there are several options. You can receive screenings at your doctor's office, a local Planned Parenthood office or a health clinic, and often for free at your university clinic if you are a student.
There are also home tests where you can screen yourself from the comfort of your house. Be advised, home tests are not usually covered by insurance and are usually less comprehensive than the tests offered by a clinic.
The cost of STD screening varies by location and type of insurance. If you are worried about the cost of a test, don't let that stop you from taking care of your sexual health. Call your local Planned Parenthood office and ask about low-cost or free options they can provide for women and men.
Diagnosis and testing
Getting diagnosed with chlamydia is straightforward. Both men and women can choose to undergo a swab test or a urine test. For women, the swab test involves a doctor swabbing the inside of their vagina for discharge. For men, the doctor inserts a swab into the end of their penis or swab the inside of their anus.
Urine tests are easy as well. Both men and women just pee into a cup, and the urine sample is examined by a lab for bacteria.
If you test negative for chlamydia but have recently had sex with someone who is positive, it's advised you test again a few weeks later. Sometimes a very early case of the infection can go undetected. If you do test positive for chlamydia and undergo treatment, you should get tested again in about three months to ensure the infection is fully resolved.
Lab results usually take about a week. If your doctor is pretty sure you have chlamydia—based on your own symptoms or if your partner tests positive—they may start you on treatment before the lab results come in.
The consequences of undiagnosed chlamydia
Undiagnosed and, therefore, untreated chlamydia can have severe health consequences.
Men rarely experience long-term effects of undiagnosed chlamydia. In some cases, however, chlamydia can lead to a urethra infection, testicle pain, rectum inflammation and epididymitis. A 2017 review published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases suggested that while fewer men contract chlamydia, the infection can last longer.
"In women, the chlamydia infection can extend into the uterus and out the fallopian tubes into the pelvic cavity, causing pelvic inflammatory disease [PID], which may require a longer course of oral antibiotics or hospitalization for IV antibiotics," Tulenko said. "PID can also cause infertility in women by scarring and blocking the fallopian tubes."
For pregnant women, undiagnosed chlamydia can harm the baby, which is why early pregnancy testing is so crucial.
"Pregnant women with chlamydia are more likely to have preterm labor, low birth weight babies, and experience other pregnancy complications," she added. "Chlamydia can also be passed on to a woman's newborn as it passes through the birth canal. These babies can develop eye infections, which are treated with topical antibiotics, or lung infections, which are treated with IV antibiotics."
An undiagnosed chlamydia infection opens you up to being infected with other sexually transmitted infections. Regular screening is so important and can save you, your partners and even your children from negative health ramifications.