Anna had no symptoms when she went to a Wake County, North Carolina clinic to pick up her birth control pills. But, a routine test revealed that the 20-year-old had chlamydia. "She came in and had no complaints," says Peter Leone, MD, the clinic's medical director, "and then 'boom,' she was diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease."

What Is Chlamydial Infection?

Chlamydial infection is a curable sexually transmitted disease (STD), which is caused by a bacterium called Chlamydia trachomatis. You can get the infection during oral, vaginal, or anal sexual contact with an infected partner.

It can cause serious problems in women as well as in newborn babies of infected mothers. Men can also be infected with Chlamydia. Chlamydial infection is one of the most common STDs in the United States.

The infection may move inside a woman’s body if it is not treated. There, it can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). C. trachomatis can cause inflamed rectum and inflammation of the lining of the eye. The bacteria also can infect the throat from oral sex with an infected partner. Men may develop the painful condition called epididymitis.

Symptoms of Chlamydia

Because chlamydial infection does not make most people sick, you can have it and not know it. Those who do have symptoms may have an abnormal discharge (mucus or pus) from the vagina or penis or pain while urinating. These early symptoms may be very mild. If symptoms appear, they often appear within 1-3 weeks after being infected. Because the symptoms may be mild or not exist at all, you might not seek care.

Complications of Chlamydia

One serious complication of chlamydia is impaired fertility. Women who develop pelvic inflammatory disease have a significantly reduced likelihood of becoming pregnant because of scarring of their fallopian tubes. A second (or especially a third) episode of pelvic inflammatory disease may make childbearing very unlikely or even impossible.

Chlamydia Infection in Newborns

A baby who is exposed to C. trachomatis in the birth canal during delivery may develop an eye infection or pneumonia. Symptoms of conjunctivitis or "pink eye," which include discharge and swollen eyelids, usually develop within the first 10 days of life. Symptoms of pneumonia , including a cough that gets steadily worse and congestion, most often develop within 3-6 weeks of birth. Doctors can treat both conditions successfully with antibiotics. Because of these risks to the newborn, most doctors recommend that all pregnant women get tested for chlamydial infection. Infections may also lead to premature delivery or miscarriage during pregnancy.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Chlamydia

Diagnosis

Chlamydial infection is easily confused with gonorrhea because the symptoms of both diseases are similar and the diseases can occur together. The most reliable ways to find out whether the infection is chlamydial are through lab tests. Usually, a doctor will send a sample of pus from the vagina or penis to a lab for examination. It may take 2-3 days to get the report from the lab. Urine test are also available and does not require a pelvic exam or swabbing of the penis.

Treatment

If you are infected with C. trachomatis, your doctor will probably give you a prescription for an antibiotic, such as azithromycin (taken for one day only) or doxycycline (taken for seven days). Doctors may treat pregnant women with other medicines (eg, amoxicillin).

If You Have Chlamydial Infection

If you have chlamydial infection:

  • Take all of the prescribed medicine, even after symptoms disappear.
  • If the symptoms do not disappear within 1-2 weeks after finishing the medicine, tell your doctor.
  • It is very important to tell your sex partners that you have chlamydial infection so that they can be tested and treated.

Preventing Chlamydial Infection

You can reduce your chance of getting chlamydia or giving it to your partner by using male latex condoms correctly every time you have sexual intercourse (oral, anal, or vaginal). If you are infected but have no symptoms, you may pass the bacteria to your sex partners without knowing it. Therefore, many doctors recommend that anyone who has more than one sex partner, especially women under 25 years of age, be tested for chlamydial infection regularly, even if they do not have symptoms.