Chlamydia is the most frequently reported sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States. In 2022, more than 1.6 million infections were reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, in many cases, those with chlamydia may experience few or no symptoms, so it’s very likely that total infections are higher than reported each year.

The good news is that chlamydia is easily treated. But when left untreated, chlamydia can lead to other more serious reproductive health issues for both men and women.

So, how do you get chlamydia? How do you know you have it without symptoms? Or if you are experiencing strange symptoms, what signs of chlamydia should you look for? And how is chlamydia treated? Below, we answer all these questions and more.

What chlamydia is and how you can get it

Chlamydia is caused by a bacteria called Chlamydia trachomatis, and is carried in genital fluids. It can be spread through sex with someone who has it and contact with infected genital fluids. You’re more likely to get chlamydia if you don’t use protection (like a condom) or have multiple sexual partners.

Anyone can get chlamydia, but according to the CDC, it’s most common in young people, especially young women aged 15-24. That’s why it’s important to start the STI and STD conversation with kids early, so they can be well informed about sexual health at a young age.

Chlamydia can’t be spread through casual contact

Chlamydia can’t be passed through kissing or hugging, or from sharing baths, towels, pools or toilet seats. However, it can be spread through sexual contact, even if there isn’t penetration. For instance, if you or your partner have chlamydia and your genitals come into contact with each other, there’s a risk of infection.

Common symptoms of chlamydia in men and women

Since chlamydia causes few to no symptoms in most people, you may pass it to someone else without knowing. And if it goes on untreated, it can lead to more serious health problems, especially in women. If you do start having symptoms, they may not show up for a few weeks or even months.

Chlamydia most commonly occurs in the urethra in both men and women, or the cervix in females, but it can also occur in the rectum, eyes and the throat.

Chlamydia symptoms in women

When symptoms of chlamydia in women are present, they can look and feel similar to other conditions, like a urinary tract infection (UTI), and may include:

  • Unusual vaginal discharge that’s white, yellow or gray
  • Vaginal discharge that may be strong smelling
  • Itching or burning in or around the vagina
  • Pus-like discharge in urine
  • Pain, stinging or burning when peeing
  • Pain during sex due to the infection making the cervix more sensitive
  • Bleeding after sex
  • Unusual bleeding between periods that can be red, brown or pinkish
  • Cramping, dull or sharp abdominal pain

Chlamydia symptoms in men

Chlamydia symptoms men may experience include:

  • Pain, burning or stinging while peeing
  • Burning or itching in the urethra (the tube that carries urine from the bladder and out of the body)
  • Discharge from the penis that’s separate from urine that can be thick and cloudy, and brown or yellow in color
  • Testicle pain (this is uncommon)

Symptoms of chlamydia in other areas of the body

Both men and women can get chlamydia in their rectum, from receptive anal sexual intercourse. It can also spread from another infected site like the vagina. Symptoms include:

  • Discharge
  • Rectal pain
  • Bleeding

Chlamydia can occur in the eyes through contact with infected genital fluid, and result in chlamydial conjunctivitis and trachoma, an eye disease that can cause blindness. Symptoms include:

  • Irritation
  • Swollen eyelids
  • Redness in the eyes
  • Discharge
  • Teary eyes
  • Swollen lymph nodes around the eyes
  • Photophobia (higher sensitivity to light)

Chlamydia can occur in the throat from oral sex. In most cases, people who get chlamydia in their throat don’t experience symptoms, and if they do, it’s usually a sore throat. Other symptoms can include:

  • Swollen tonsils
  • Mouth pain
  • Redness in the mouth
  • Bumps on the tongue
  • White spots on the tonsils or back of the throat
  • Mild fever
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • Sores around the lips

When you get an infection, there’s an incubation period. This is the number of days between when you’re infected with something (like chlamydia) and when you might start to have symptoms of the infection.

It’s not known exactly how long the incubation period for chlamydia is, and since you might not develop symptoms at all, experts recommend that you wait to test until 7-21 days after you think you may have been exposed. This reduces the chance of a false negative even if you do have it.

If you start to have symptoms, or if you’ve had unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone you know has chlamydia, you should test as soon as you can after the incubation period.

In addition, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends yearly chlamydia screenings for:

  • Sexually active females, including pregnant females, ages 24 and younger
  • Sexually active women ages 25 and older, including pregnant women, who are at increased risk for infection, which includes having a previous or coexisting STI, a new or more than one sex partner, or a sex partner with an STI

The USPSTF doesn’t currently recommend testing for chlamydia if you’re not at increased risk. Keep in mind that these are just recommendations, so talk to your health care provider to discuss your options and figure out what’s best for you and your sexual health.

What happens during a test for chlamydia?

There are a few ways that you can get tested for chlamydia. For both men and women, the most common is a urine test, where a sample of urine is analyzed in a lab to see if the infection is present.

Another way to test is with a swab. A sample from the vagina, cervix, anus or mouth is collected on a swab, and then tested in a lab. For women, this can be done during a routine Pap test.

There are also at-home tests approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). With these tests, you collect a swab or urine sample at home and send it to a lab to be analyzed. These tests are accurate, quick and private, but they’re not meant to replace a visit to your doctor. They’re mainly meant for people who don’t have symptoms. If you’re experiencing symptoms, it’s important to talk with your provider right away and get tested in a lab.

Getting treated for chlamydia

Chlamydia is highly treatable with the right antibiotic prescribed by your doctor. This could be either a single-dose injection or a 7-day course of antibiotics.

If you have a single-dose treatment, it’s advised you not have sex for seven days after. And if you are prescribed a course of antibiotics, it’s recommended you not have sex until your treatment is completed and your symptoms are gone – if you are experiencing any.

It's also recommended that you retest about three months after you complete treatment to make sure the infection is gone. If you’re still experiencing symptoms a few days after you receive treatment, you should make an appointment to talk to your doctor.

Potential health risks when chlamydia goes untreated

If you are experiencing symptoms or think you may have been in contact with someone who has chlamydia, it’s important to get tested, diagnosed and treated as soon as you can. Untreated chlamydia can lead to severe health problems, especially in women.

Untreated chlamydia in women can cause these conditions

  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) – This can occur when an untreated STI damages reproductive organs, and can lead to infertility and chronic pelvic pain. It can also block fallopian tubes, which can cause an ectopic pregnancy, where the embryo implants outside of the uterus.
  • Pregnancy complications – When left untreated, chlamydia can lead to premature birth. It can also be passed on from a pregnant woman to her baby during delivery, causing neonatal conjunctivitis, pneumonia or infections in the baby’s genitals.
  • Infertility – Untreated chlamydia can cause permanent damage to the vagina, uterus and fallopian tubes, making it difficult to become pregnant.

Untreated chlamydia in men can cause these conditions

  • Reduced fertility – Untreated chlamydia can harm sperm, which can make it difficult to conceive.
  • Epididymitis – This is when an untreated infection causes a tube in the back of the testicles to become swollen and painful.

Untreated chlamydia can also increase the chances of reactive arthritis – where joint pain and swelling are triggered by an untreated STI or another infection – and increase the chances of HIV, especially if one of your symptoms is the presence of sores.

Protect yourself from chlamydia

If you’re sexually active, being in a long-term, monogamous relationship and using protection every time you engage in sexual activity will reduce your risk of chlamydia. If you think you’ve been exposed, testing for chlamydia and other STIs is easy – screening can be done with a simple test at any of our primary care clinics.

Women can also be screened at HealthPartners Health Center for Women, Park Nicollet Women’s Center or with any of our HealthPartners and Park Nicollet OB-GYN doctors.

Virtual care is possible, too. With Virtuwell, our 24/7 online clinic, you can be diagnosed and prescribed treatment for over 60 conditions, including chlamydia.