Chlamydia is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that GPs can easily treat and cure.
It affects sexually active people of all ages and genders*, with 15-30 years old at the highest risk of infection.
Chlamydia is also the most commonly reported STI in Australia.
- Practising safe sex is the best way to avoid catching chlamydia
- Symptoms vary greatly, though most people are asymptomatic
- Diagnosis: A range of reliable tests are available
- Getting treated for chlamydia with antibiotics
- Chlamydia can cause pregnancy complications
- About Dr Nicholas Hudson
Infection rates among our population are around 380 per 100,000 – more than three times that of gonorrhoea, the next most common STI.
* I recognise and appreciate that not all patients identify with binary genders.
How do You Catch Chlamydia?
Chlamydia is transmissible during vaginal, anal, and oral sex with someone who’s infected.
Using condoms, practising safe sex, and limiting the number of sexual partners reduces the chances of infection dramatically.
Mothers can also pass on chlamydia to their babies during delivery.
What are the Symptoms?
Most people with chlamydia are asymptomatic – meaning no obvious symptoms are present.
However, they can still infect sexual partners.
Vaginal symptoms include:
- unusual vaginal discharge;
- bleeding between periods;
- a burning or stinging sensation when urinating;
- pain or bleeding during intercourse, and
- pelvic pain.
If left untreated, chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). Potential infection and scarring of the fallopian tubes may cause infertility or pregnancy complications.
Ectopic pregnancies are also a real risk.
Penile symptoms include:
- a burning or stinging sensation when urinating;
- discharge from the penis, and
- if left untreated, painful or swollen testicles.
Men also run the risk of infertility.
Anal symptoms can include:
- Anal pain
It’s common to have simultaneous infections in more than one part of your body after different types of sex with an infected partner.
Regardless of gender, anyone can develop complications such as reactive arthritis (Reiter Syndrome). This is where the urethra, joints, and eyes become inflamed.
Symptoms contracted through anal sex may include a painful bum and anal discharge.
Chlamydia can also occasionally cause eye infections.
How Do We Diagnose Chlamydia?
Your GP or sexual health clinic tests for chlamydia by ordering a urine sample or a swab from the affected area.
Doctor-collected cervical/vaginal swabs, self-collected vaginal swabs, and urine sample tests are the best for women.
Men usually have a urine sample sent for tests. Men who have sex with men (MSM) also may have rectal and/or throat (pharynx) swabs taken.
Sometimes, after you explain your symptoms to your doctor or they examine the affected area, they’ll get a strong enough suspicion that chlamydia is at play and immediately begin treatment.
In such cases, I’ll still order tests to ensure the diagnosis is correct.
Getting Treated for Chlamydia
Doctors can easily treat chlamydia with a course of antibiotics. They’ll either prescribe azithromycin or doxycycline tablets.
You should avoid sexual intercourse (even with a condom) during treatment and for a week after you’ve started antibiotics.
It’s also a good idea for a doctor to examine and test your partner during your treatment period.
If your partner is being treated for the infection, again, avoid sex until a week after treatment.
In most cases, chlamydia is curable with this simple treatment. Symptoms should start improving in a few days and disappear after a week or two.
Depending on the site of infection on your body, I recommend a follow-up test one-to-three months after treatment to confirm the all-clear.
It’s also essential to tell recent sexual partners about your positive result. Known as contact tracing, informing partners that they may also have chlamydia minimises their chance of developing complications.
I recommend contacting any sexual partners from the past six months.
Chlamydia and Pregnancy
GPs routinely test pregnant women for chlamydia during their first antenatal visit.
Among many risks, having the STI when pregnant can cause a woman’s water to break prematurely, resulting in a pre-term birth.
Though rare, babies can contract the infection during delivery. A newborn with the infection risks them developing conjunctivitis and pneumonia.
Antibiotics used to treat chlamydia are perfectly safe to take during pregnancy.
Doctors can diagnose asymptomatic chlamydia in women in the following ways:
– During periodic cervical screening tests (which have replaced pap smears).
– Opportunistic screening while getting checking the suitability to take the contraceptive pill.
– During fertility checks.
– In the course of a pregnant woman’s first antenatal check.
– During sexual health screening visits.
In men, the only real way to detect chlamydia without symptoms is to be proactive and request a sexual health screening with your GP.
Alternatively, we can sometimes detect the infection during fertility tests.
Can you get antibiotics for chlamydia over the counter?
No. Azithromycin and doxycycline tablets are Schedule 4 drugs, meaning your GP or specialist must prescribe them.
Does chlamydia come back?
Because you don’t gain any immunity from previous infections, you can catch chlamydia more than once.
As such, it’s a good idea to have regular checkups and follow safe sex guidelines.
Chlamydia can come back if you don’t complete your course of antibiotics or if you get re-infected by a sexual partner.
Sexual partners must get treated with antibiotics even if all their tests come back clear.
Any tips for letting past sexual partners know they should get tested for chlamydia?
Telling past partners in person or over the phone is always best, and it’s usually much less awkward than you may think.
Melbourne Sexual Health Centre has a great website called www.letthemknow.org.au to help with contact tracing. This website lets you notify past partners via SMS, emails or letters.
You can do this anonymously if you prefer.
How common is chlamydia in Australia?
Very common indeed.
The Department of Health believes chlamydia is Australia’s most frequently reported infectious disease, with nearly 97,000 people diagnosed each year.
The lack of symptoms heavily contributes to its prevalence in the community.
Detected cases have skyrocketed over the past 20 years. The good news is that this surge likely reflects increased awareness and testing.
More testing equals more patients diagnosed.
How can having an STI affect someone’s mental health?
It’s not unusual to feel anxious about re-infection impacting your sex life.
Patients can also feel ashamed when they visit their GP for a sexual health consult.
Rest assured, I’ll treat you and your concerns with respect and understanding.
GPs are professionals who don’t judge you or your sexual practices.
I understand that healthy sex is an important part of people’s lives. I treat sexual health issues with the same care and confidentiality as any other health issue.