Chlamydia is the most commonly reported bacterial sexually transmitted infection (STI) in Canada. When left untreated, it can lead to painful health problems and infertility.

After a period of decline, the rates of reported cases of chlamydia infection have risen steadily since 1997. The increasing rate of this bacterial infection is attributed, in part, to improved lab tests and screening, as well as people not consistently using safer sex methods. Chlamydia disproportionately affects sexually active youth and young adults, especially women ages 15-24 in Canada.

Chlamydia is transmitted through vaginal, anal and oral sex and can be transmitted from mother to child during childbirth. It is known as the "silent disease" because it is estimated that more than 50 percent of infected males and 70 percent of infected females have no symptoms and are unaware of their condition.

The only reliable way to know if you have chlamydia is to be tested. It is diagnosed through a urine sample or by swabbing the infected area and is treated with antibiotics.

Symptoms of chlamydia

As noted above, the majority of infected people have no symptoms of chlamydia, and therefore may not know they are infected unless they get tested. Symptoms of infection for women can include:

  • vaginal discharge
  • burning sensation when urinating
  • pain in the lower abdomen, sometimes with fever and chills
  • pain during sex
  • vaginal bleeding between periods or after intercourse

Symptoms for men can include:

  • discharge from the penis
  • burning sensation when urinating
  • burning or itching at the opening of the penis
  • pain and/or swelling in the testicles

In both men and women, chlamydia can infect the rectum. Symptoms of anal infection include rectal pain, bleeding and discharge. Those infected through oral sex usually don't have symptoms. Eye infection can occur through contact with infected genital secretions.If symptoms do occur, they usually appear two to six weeks after infection, but it can take longer for symptoms to appear. Even without symptoms, however, chlamydia can be transmitted and can lead to serious health problems and infertility, especially in women. Anyone at risk should therefore be tested.

The health risks of chlamydia

For up to 40 percent of infected women, untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID effects include abdominal pain, fever, internal abscesses and long-lasting pelvic pain; effects also include scarring of the fallopian tubes, which can cause infertility and increase the chance of potentially life-threatening ectopic or tubal pregnancies.

Men can develop scarring of the urethra, making urination difficult and occasionally causing infertility. Although rare, both sexes are at risk of a type of arthritis known as Reiter's Syndrome that causes inflammation and swelling of the joints.

If a pregnant woman has chlamydia, her baby may be born prematurely, have eye infections or develop pneumonia.

Minimizing your risk

Following these suggestions can help you avoid contracting and transmitting chlamydia:

  • Learn about safer sex methods and practice them.
  • Make informed decisions. Talk to your partner(s) about their STI status and the use of protection.
  • Correctly and consistently using a condom during sex reduces the risk of chlamydia and other STIs.
  • Get tested for chlamydia if you are sexually active.
  • If you are diagnosed and treated for chlamydia, be sure to follow your healthcare professional's treatment and follow-up recommendations. Avoid unprotected sexual activities that may put you at risk for re-infection until you and your partner(s) have completed your antibiotic treatment and have been told the infection is gone.
  • It is important that you or someone from your public health department notify any sexual partner(s) who may have been put at risk of infection. They will also need to be tested and possibly treated.
  • People who have chlamydia are more likely to become infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
  • People who have both HIV and chlamydia are more likely to spread HIV to others.
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