Chlamydia: An Overview

Chlamydia infection, SEM

Chlamydia is the most common curable sexually transmitted disease. It is caused by the obligate intracellular parasite Chlamydia trachomatis. Somewhere between a bacterium and a virus, this pathogen can infect the eyes as well as the genitals. These infections are incredibly common around the world.

Hundreds of thousands of new cases pf chlamydia are reported every year in the United States, but that probably represents less than half of all infections.

This is because half of all chlamydia cases in men and three-quarters of chlamydia cases in women have no symptoms. Scientists estimate that in the U.S. alone there are 3-4 million new cases a year have no symptoms. The only way to detect those cases is through preventative screening. However, STD screening is not a standard part of care for most men and many women. 

For Men

The primary infection site for chlamydia in men is the urethra.. This is the tube inside the penis that carries urine and sperm. Infection of the urethra is known as urethritis. Chlamydia symptoms in men may include:

  • burning pain on urination
  • discharge from the opening of the penis (the urethra)
  • pain in the testicles
  • pain in, or discharge from, the rectum

For Women

The primary infection site for chlamydia in women is the cervix. This is opening that connects the vagina to the uterus, or womb. It's also known as the "mouth of the womb." Infection of the cervix is known as cervicitis.

Chlamydia symptoms in women may include:

  • Vaginal irritation
  • Vaginal discharge
  • Painful sexual intercourse
  • Pain in, or discharge from, the rectum
  • Nondescript pain in the lower abdomen
  • Severe pelvic pain from an infection that has ascended from the cervix into the upper reproductive tract.

For Everyone

The symptoms described above, however, could also indicate other infections.

That's why testing is so important. It's the only way to know if you have chlamydia. That's true whether or not you have symptoms. If you have any sign of discharge from your genitalia or unexplained irritation, you should speak to the health provider of your choice for chlamydia testing.

If you are uncomfortable seeing your regular doctor about a possible STD diagnosis, many regional areas have public STD clinics. Planned Parenthood is also a good resource for STD treatment and diagnosis. Both government run clinics and Planned Parenthood scale treatment prices to your income. Therefore, money should not be an issue in seeking treatment.

Because so many people with chlamydia have no symptoms, screening is critical. Both urine and swab tests are available. That means that testing is pretty straightforward. It doesn't have to be any more unpleasant than peeing in a cup! It is important to ask your doctor to screen you for chlamydia at your annual visit if there is any chance you might have been exposed.

If you have had unprotected sex with a partner who is infected with, or has not been tested for, chlamydia, you should consider yourself at risk for disease.

Before entering into a new sexual relationship, or starting to have unprotected sex in your current relationship, many sex educators recommend that both you and your partner be screened for chlamydia and other common STDs. When in doubt, use condoms, which have been shown to be effective in preventing the spread of chlamydia.

Did You Know: Some states offer expedited partner therapy for chlamydia. That means, if you are found to be infected, you may be given antibiotics for both you and your partner. However, it's still important to practice safe sex during treatment. You don't want to pass the infection back and forth between you even while you're working on getting rid of it!


Low N, Redmond S, Uusküla A, van Bergen J, Ward H, Andersen B, Götz H. Screening for genital chlamydia infection. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Sep 13;9:CD010866.

Schillinger JA, Gorwitz R, Rietmeijer C, Golden MR. The Expedited Partner Therapy Continuum: A Conceptual Framework to Guide Programmatic Efforts to Increase Partner Treatment. Sex Transm Dis. 2016 Feb;43(2 Suppl 1):S63-75. doi: 10.1097/OLQ.0000000000000399

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