April is Sexually Transmitted Disease Awareness Month (#STDMONTH17). This year the focus is on syphilis. Since we wrote a blog about syphilis not too long ago and covered herpes last week, this blog will be about a different sexually transmitted disease: chlamydia.
What exactly is chlamydia? As the Sex Ed teacher from the Mean Girls movie states, “But if you do touch each other, you will get chlamydia…and die.” Although this is not true, chlamydia infection can affect your future and it is worth knowing more about, especially since the treatment is so simple.
Chlamydia trachomatis is the most common sexually transmitted bacteria. The highest rates are among males and females 15-24 years of age. However, the vast majority people with chlamydia have no symptoms (so a lot of people have no idea that they are even infected, which is just crazy). Because of this, the infection can be transmitted from one person to another without knowing. This is why health care providers do routine screening (whether or not you complain of any symptoms).
How Chlamydia Spreads
How does one get chlamydia? Great question! Chlamydia is transmitted by coming in contact with infected bodily fluids and can be spread by vaginal, anal, and oral sex (it can also be spread from a mom to baby during childbirth). The only way to completely avoid getting chlamydia is to avoid all intimate contact. Condom use during any (and all) types of sexual activities can help prevent the spread of chlamydia.
As already stated, most infections are without symptoms. When symptoms are present, these differ between males and females. For males, symptoms can be penile discharge, pain with urination, and in rare cases testicular pain. In females, the cervix is the most common site of infection; symptoms can include change in vaginal discharge, burning with urination, vaginal bleeding between periods, and bleeding after sex. Untreated chlamydia infections (even if you never had symptoms) can travel upward to other reproductive organs (uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries), called pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). When the infection travels upwards it can cause abscesses, scarring, and can lead to infertility or ectopic pregnancy (where egg fertilized with sperm implants somewhere other than the uterus – super dangerous). I repeat: something that you may not know you have can cause problems getting pregnant down the road.
How Chlamydia is Diagnosed
How is chlamydia diagnosed at your health care provider’s office? For women, all you have to do is swab your vagina with a special cotton swab or pee in a cup. Guys just have to pee in a cup (note: your health care provider will not put a swab in your penis – I have had many male patients look at me with complete terror when I mention testing for chlamydia). Your health care provider can show you how to get a proper sample.
Chlamydia treatment is simple: swallow a pill (or 2). Most places will also give you a prescription for your partner(s) so that that person can be treated without having to see a doctor (something called expedited partner therapy, which is legal in Wisconsin but not legal in some states). It’s important to avoid sexual activity for at least 1 week after both you and your partner(s) have completed the treatment to make sure that the infection has completely cleared. Once you are treated with the antibiotic, immunity does not last so infection can occur again.
Again, abstaining from all sexual contact is the only way to guarantee you have not been exposed to chlamydia. If you become sexually active with a new partner, make sure both you and your partner have been tested. In addition, use condoms to prevent getting this or other sexually transmitted infections in the future.