What is chlamydia and how do you catch it?
What is chlamydia?
Chlamydia is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Often symptomless, and easily spread, chlamydia is one of the most common STIs worldwide and in the UK.
Chlamydia is named after the Greek word chlamys meaning "cloak draped around the shoulder". The name refers to how the intracytoplasmic inclusions caused by the bacteria are ‘draped’ around the nucleus of infected cells. Chlamydia was originally thought to be a virus but research in the 1960s showed it to be a bacteria. Chlamydia wasn’t classified as an STI until 1976.
How common is chlamydia in the UK?
Chlamydia is the most common STI in the UK. It is especially common in young people. In 2018, 218,095 people were diagnosed with chlamydia in England, a 6% rise from the previous year. Bear in mind, these figures only cover diagnosed cases of chlamydia – many people have the infection but don’t know they do.
It's impossible to know exactly how many people have chlamydia. However, due to the ease with which chlamydia is spread and the fact that it is often causes no symptoms the actual number of people living with chlamydia is almost certainly much higher.
How do you catch chlamydia?
The first thing to know is that chlamydia can be spread through a variety of sexual activities. Chlamydia is a bacterial infection and is carried within genital fluids (vaginal fluid and semen); you can contract the infection by coming into contact with these fluids.
How chlamydia is spread?
Many people think that STIs are transmitted solely through penetrative sex. In fact, chlamydia can be spread through:
- Vaginal sex
- Anal sex
- Oral sex
- Sharing sex toys
- Genital contact
- Genital fluids coming into contact with the eye
Chlamydia is caused by the bacteria chlamydia trachomatis. It is primarily passed through unprotected sex (sex without a condom).
One of the sexual partners must already have chlamydia in order to pass on the infection. You can’t catch chlamydia without direct contact with the infection.
What are the symptoms of chlamydia?
Chlamydia is notorious for its common lack of symptoms, meaning the infection can easily be caught without you realising. Around 50% of men and up to 70% of women display no symptoms of chlamydia. Therefore if you have unprotected sex with a new partner you should get an STI test regardless of how you might feel.
Common chlamydia symptoms in men include unusual discharge from the penis, a burning sensation when urinating, and occasionally pain or swelling around the testicles known as ‘epididymitis’.
Common chlamydia symptoms in women include abnormal vaginal discharge, bleeding between periods, bleeding during or after sex and a burning sensation when urinating. A chlamydia infection can also lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID causes stomach pain, vaginal discharge, fever and can affect fertility if left untreated. For both men and women, if infected fluid has come into contact with the eye, you may suffer with conjunctivitis.
Chlamydia tests are easily accessible and very simple to take. Testing for chlamydia requires a urine sample, swab from the vagina and/or swab from the throat and rectum. Our online doctor provides urine tests for men and vaginal swabs for women that can be taken at home. If you test positive for chlamydia you will receive free treatment, provided you are medically suitable.
Can you catch chlamydia by sharing sex toys?
Yes, chlamydia can be passed on by sharing sex toys, like many other STIs. You can minimise this risk by covering sex toys with a new condom each time they are used.
Chlamydia is a sexually transmitted infection spread in infected genital fluids. It is the most commonly diagnosed STI in the UK; in 2018, there were over 200,000 new cases in England. It is particularly prevalent amongst sexually active teenagers and young adults but anyone can be at risk.
If you’re concerned about chlamydia and other STIs, read on. Our doctors have put together a guide to chlamydia and practising safe sex.
How to avoid chlamydia
The best way to avoid chlamydia is to always use protection when you aren’t certain that your partner is STI-free.
Vaginal and anal sex
For vaginal or anal sex, you should always use condoms. Lubricant can help prevent condoms from splitting. If you are using latex condoms, you should not use oil-based lubricants as these can damage the condom.
For oral sex, you can use condoms to cover the penis and prevent the transmission of infected semen into the mouth or eyes. Dental dams can also be used for oral sex; these are thin, soft pieces of plastic or latex that are placed over the vagina.
When sharing sex toys, you can avoid the transmission of chlamydia and other STIs by washing the toys between uses or covering them with a fresh condom.
Complications of chlamydia
It’s important to bear in mind that chlamydia does not always present with symptoms. It’s believed that 70% of women and 50% of men who become infected with chlamydia don’t suffer any symptoms. This is problematic because, when left untreated, chlamydia can lead to serious health complications.
In women, untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can in turn cause ectopic pregnancy, chronic pain, and even infertility.
In men, untreated chlamydia can cause inflammation in the testicles and the tubes that carry sperm from the testicles. In some cases, this can lead to fertility problems.
Untreated chlamydia can cause sexually acquired reactive arthritis (SARA), where the joints, eyes and/or urethra become inflamed.
How to treat chlamydia
Chlamydia is an easy infection to treat, and can be completely cured if the necessary medication is taken correctly.
Being a bacterial infection, chlamydia can be treated with antibiotics. Chlamydia treatment for uncomplicated infection usually consists of taking an antibiotic tablet for seven days.
You should take your antibiotics exactly as directed by your doctor. More than 95% of people who take their antibiotics correctly will be completely cured.
Getting tested for chlamydia
To receive treatment for chlamydia you will need a diagnosis. If you are experiencing symptoms, or if you have had unprotected sex with someone who has chlamydia, it’s likely that you will be treated before you receive your test results.
In most cases, a test will be carried out and treatment will commence when the test results come back positive. The test for chlamydia is quick and painless. For women it usually involves a swab of the vagina; for men it usually involves giving a urine sample.
To get tested for free, you should visit your GP or a sexual health clinic. If you’re under 25 you’ll also be able to benefit from the National Chlamydia Screening Programme (NCSP), which operates out of some pharmacies, colleges and youth centres. In certain areas, the NCSP also provides free home test kits to under-25s, which can be ordered online (click here to find out if you are eligible).
When to get tested
If you’ve had unprotected sex and you think you might have been exposed to chlamydia or other STIs you should get tested as soon as possible. However, if it’s been less than two weeks since the episode of unprotected sex, you can still test but you may be asked to repeat the test two weeks after the episode of unprotected sex to rule out chlamydia infection. You should regularly screen for STIs including HIV. For those at high risk, testing every three months is recommended. You can assess your risk of STIs using our free assessment. Remember that chlamydia does not always come with symptoms so even if you feel completely healthy you may still be infected.