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Chlamydia is 1 of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the UK.
It’s passed on through unprotected sex (sex without a condom) and is particularly common in sexually active teenagers and young adults.
If you live in England, are under 25 and are sexually active, it’s recommended that you get tested for chlamydia every year or when you change sexual partner.
Symptoms of chlamydia
Most people with chlamydia do not notice any symptoms and do not know they have it.
If you do develop symptoms, you may experience:
- pain when peeing
- unusual discharge from the vagina, penis or bottom
- in women, pain in the tummy, bleeding after sex and bleeding between periods
- in men, pain and swelling in the testicles
If you think you’re at risk of having a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or have any symptoms of chlamydia, visit a GP, community contraceptive service or local genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic to get tested.
How do you get chlamydia?
Chlamydia is a bacterial infection. The bacteria are usually spread through sex or contact with infected genital fluids (semen or vaginal fluid).
You can get chlamydia through:
- unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex
- sharing sex toys that are not washed or covered with a new condom each time they’re used
- your genitals coming into contact with your partner’s genitals – this means you can get chlamydia from someone even if there’s no penetration, orgasm or ejaculation
- infected semen or vaginal fluid getting into your eye
It can also be passed by a pregnant woman to her baby.
Chlamydia cannot be passed on through casual contact, such as kissing and hugging, or from sharing baths, towels, swimming pools, toilet seats or cutlery.
Is chlamydia serious?
Although chlamydia does not usually cause any symptoms and can normally be treated with a short course of antibiotics, it can be serious if it’s not treated early on.
If left untreated, the infection can spread to other parts of your body and lead to long-term health problems, such as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), epididymo-orchitis (inflammation of the testicles) and infertility.
It can also sometimes cause reactive arthritis.
This is why it’s important to get tested and treated as soon as possible if you think you might have chlamydia.
Getting tested for chlamydia
Testing for chlamydia is done with a urine test or a swab test.
You do not always need a physical examination by a nurse or doctor.
Anyone can get a free and confidential chlamydia test at a sexual health clinic, a genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic or a GP surgery.
People under 25 years old can also get tested by the National Chlamydia Screening Programme (NCSP).
This is often in places such as pharmacies, contraception clinics or colleges.
If you live in England, you’re under 25 and you’re sexually active, you should get tested for chlamydia every year or when you change sexual partner, as you’re more likely to catch it.
You can also buy chlamydia testing kits to do at home.
How chlamydia is treated
Chlamydia can usually be treated easily with antibiotics.
You may be given some tablets to take all on 1 day, or a longer course of capsules to take for a week.
You should not have sex until you and your current sexual partner have finished treatment.
If you had the 1-day course of treatment, you should avoid having sex for a week afterwards.
It’s important that your current sexual partner and any other recent sexual partners you have had are also tested and treated to help stop the spread of the infection.
Under-25s who have chlamydia should be offered another test around 3 months after being treated.
This is because young adults who test positive for chlamydia are at increased risk of catching it again.
Sexual health or genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics can help you contact your sexual partners.
Either you or the clinic can speak to them, or they can be sent a note advising them to get tested.
The note will not have your name on it, so your confidentiality will be protected.
Anyone who’s sexually active can catch chlamydia.
You’re most at risk if you have a new sexual partner or do not use a barrier method of contraception, such as a condom, when having sex.
You can help to prevent the spread of chlamydia by:
- using a condom every time you have vaginal or anal sex
- using a condom to cover the penis during oral sex
- using a dam (a piece of thin, soft plastic or latex) to cover the female genitals during oral sex or when rubbing female genitals together
- not sharing sex toys
If you do share sex toys, wash them or cover them with a new condom between each person who uses them.
If you do get symptoms, these usually appear between 1 and 3 weeks after having unprotected sex with an infected person. For some people they don’t develop until many months later.
Sometimes the symptoms can disappear after a few days. Even if the symptoms disappear you may still have the infection and be able to pass it on.
Symptoms in women
At least 70% of women with chlamydia don’t notice any symptoms. If they do get symptoms, the most common include:
- pain when urinating
- unusual vaginal discharge
- pain in the tummy or pelvis
- pain during sex
- bleeding after sex
- bleeding between periods
Read more about the complications of chlamydia.
Symptoms in men
At least half of all men with chlamydia don’t notice any symptoms. If they do get symptoms, the most common include:
- pain when urinating
- white, cloudy or watery discharge from the tip of the penis
- burning or itching in the urethra (the tube that carries urine out of the body)
- pain in the testicles
If chlamydia is left untreated, the infection can cause swelling in the epididymis (the tubes that carry sperm from the testicles) and the testicles. This could affect your fertility.
Read more about the complications of chlamydia.
Chlamydia in the rectum, throat or eyes
Chlamydia can also infect:
- the rectum (back passage) if you have unprotected anal sex – this can cause discomfort and discharge from your rectum
- the throat if you have unprotected oral sex – this is uncommon and usually causes no symptoms
- the eyes if they come into contact with infected semen or vaginal fluid – this can cause eye redness, pain and discharge (conjunctivitis)
When to seek medical advice
If you have any symptoms of chlamydia, visit your GP, community contraceptive service or local genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic as soon as possible.
You should also get tested if you don’t have any symptoms but are concerned you could have a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
If you’re sexually active and under 25 years old, you should get tested for chlamydia every year or every time you have a new partner. You can get tested in places such as pharmacies, colleges and youth centres.
Read more about getting tested for chlamydia.
If you live in England, you’re under 25 and you’re sexually active, it is recommended that you get tested every year or when you change sexual partner, as you’re more likely to catch chlamydia.
What does the chlamydia test involve?
The recommended tests for chlamydia are simple, painless and generally very reliable.
They involve sending a sample of cells to a laboratory for analysis. You don’t necessarily have to be examined by a doctor or nurse first and can often collect the sample yourself.
There are two main ways the sample can be collected:
- using a swab – a small cotton bud is gently wiped over the area that might be infected, such as inside the vagina or inside the anus
- urinating into a container – this should ideally be done at least 1 or 2 hours after you last urinated
Men will usually be asked to provide a urine sample, while women will usually be asked to either swab inside their vagina or provide a urine sample.
The results will normally be available in 7 to 10 days. If there’s a high chance you have chlamydia – for example, you have symptoms of the infection or your partner has been diagnosed with it and you’ve had unprotected sex with them – you might start treatment before you get your results.
Read more about treating chlamydia.
When should I get tested?
Don’t delay getting tested if you think you might have chlamydia. Being diagnosed and treated as soon as possible will reduce your risk of developing any serious complications of chlamydia.
You can get a chlamydia test at any time – although you might be advised to repeat the test later on if you have it less than 2 weeks since you had sex because the infection might not always be found in the early stages.
You should consider getting tested for chlamydia if:
- you or your partner have any symptoms of chlamydia
- you’ve had unprotected sex with a new partner
- a condom splits while you’re having sex
- you or your partner have had unprotected sex with other people
- you think you could have a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
- a sexual partner tells you they have an STI
- you’re pregnant or planning a pregnancy
If you’re under 25 years of age and sexually active, getting tested every year or when you change sexual partner is recommended because you’re more likely to catch chlamydia.
If you have chlamydia, you may be offered another test around 3 months after being treated. This is because young adults who test positive for chlamydia are at increased risk of catching it again.
Where can I get a chlamydia test?
You can get a free, confidential chlamydia test at:
- a sexual health clinic
- a genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic
- your GP surgery
- most contraceptive clinics
You can go to whichever place is the most comfortable and convenient for you.
You can also buy chlamydia testing kits to do at home.
Young people under 25 years of age can get tested as part of the National Chlamydia Screening Programme (NCSP). This is often in places such as pharmacies, colleges and youth centres.
In some areas, young people can order a postal testing kit online as part of the NCSP. Search for free online tests for under-25s to see if this is available in your area.
You may be started on antibiotics once test results have confirmed you have chlamydia. But if it’s very likely you have the infection, you might be started on treatment before you get your results.
The two most commonly prescribed antibiotics for chlamydia are:
- azithromycin – given as 2 or 4 tablets at once
- doxycycline – given as 2 capsules a day for a week
Your doctor may give you different antibiotics, such as amoxicillin or erythromycin, if you have an allergy or are pregnant or breastfeeding. A longer course of antibiotics may be used if your doctor is concerned about complications of chlamydia.
When can I have sex again?
You shouldn’t have sex – including vaginal, oral or anal sex, even with a condom – until both you and your partner(s) have completed treatment.
If you had the 1-day course of azithromycin, you should avoid having sex for a week after treatment.
This will help ensure you don’t pass on the infection or catch it again straight away.
Will I need to go back to the clinic?
If you take your antibiotics correctly, you may not need to return to the clinic.
However, you will be advised to go back for another chlamydia test if:
- you had sex before you and your partner finished treatment
- you forgot to take your medication or didn’t take it properly
- your symptoms don’t go away
- you’re pregnant
If you’re under 25 years of age, you should be offered a repeat test for chlamydia 3 months after finishing your treatment because you’re at a higher risk of catching it again.
Testing and treating sexual partners
If you test positive for chlamydia, it’s important that your current sexual partner and any other recent sexual partners you’ve had are also tested and treated.
A specialist sexual health adviser can help you contact your recent sexual partners, or the clinic can contact them for you if you prefer.
Either you or someone from the clinic can speak to them, or the clinic can send them a note to let them know they may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
The note will suggest that they go for a check-up. It will not have your name on it, so your confidentiality will be protected.
Complications in men
Inflammation of the testicles
In men, chlamydia can spread to the testicles and epididymis (tubes that carry sperm from the testicles), causing them to become painful and swollen. This is known as epididymitis or epididymo-orchitis.
The inflammation is usually treated with antibiotics. If it’s not treated, there’s a possibility it could affect your fertility.
Chlamydia is the most common cause of sexually acquired reactive arthritis (SARA). This is where your joints, eyes or urethra (the tube that passes urine out of the body) become inflamed, usually within the first few weeks after having chlamydia.
It can affect women who have had chlamydia but is more common in men.
There’s currently no cure for SARA, but most people get better in a few months. In the meantime, treatment with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen can help relieve the symptoms.
Complications in women
Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
In women, chlamydia can spread to the womb, ovaries or fallopian tubes. This can cause a condition called pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
PID can cause a number of serious problems, such as:
- difficulty getting pregnant or infertility
- persistent (chronic) pelvic pain
- an increased risk of ectopic pregnancy (where a fertilised egg implants itself outside the womb)
The symptoms of PID are generally similar to the symptoms of chlamydia, including discomfort or pain during sex, pain during urination, and bleeding between periods and after sex.
PID is usually treated with a 2-week course of antibiotics. The risk of experiencing problems such as infertility is lower if it’s treated early, so it’s important to seek medical advice as soon as possible if you have symptoms of the condition.
If you have chlamydia that’s not treated while you’re pregnant, there’s a chance you could pass the infection on to your baby. If this happens, your baby may develop an eye infection (conjunctivitis) and lung infection (pneumonia).
If your baby has symptoms of these conditions, your midwife or GP can arrange for a test to check for chlamydia, and antibiotics can be used to treat the infection.
Untreated chlamydia in pregnancy may also increase the risk of problems such as your baby being born prematurely (before 37 weeks of pregnancy) or with a low birthweight.