Chlamydia is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) that can be spread through unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Using dirty towels alone cannot directly give you chlamydia. However, towels could potentially transmit the bacteria if they have been used by someone with chlamydia right after sexual activity and before bathing.
How is chlamydia spread?
Chlamydia is caused by the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis. It can be spread through:
- Unprotected vaginal sex
- Unprotected anal sex
- Unprotected oral sex
- From mother to baby during childbirth
The bacteria live in semen, vaginal fluids, and rectal mucus. They can be passed between partners even if there are no symptoms present.
Using towels, bedding, or toilet seats that have been in contact with the infected bodily fluids right after sexual activity could potentially transmit chlamydia. The bacteria cannot live for long periods outside of the body, so just using a towel that was previously used by someone with chlamydia will not automatically infect you.
What increases the risk of getting chlamydia from towels?
There are a few scenarios that could slightly increase the risk of getting chlamydia from contaminated towels:
- Using a towel immediately after it was used by someone to clean up infected fluids following sexual activity
- Sharing intimate personal products like towels with someone who has a known chlamydia infection
- Using towels in a high risk setting like a sexually transmitted infections clinic
However, it is important to remember that these situations represent a relatively low transmission risk. The vast majority of chlamydia cases are spread through direct sexual contact. Towels or other objects play a very minor role in transmission.
What are the symptoms of chlamydia?
Chlamydia often causes no symptoms, especially in the early stages. Some people may notice:
- Burning sensation when urinating
- Unusual discharge from the penis or vagina
- Pain or discomfort during sex
- Lower abdominal pain
- Bleeding between periods (women)
Without treatment, chlamydia can lead to long term health problems like pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, or chronic pelvic pain. People with chlamydia should get treated with antibiotics as soon as possible to avoid complications.
Who is most at risk for chlamydia?
Any sexually active person who has sex with multiple partners or does not use protection during sex is at risk for getting chlamydia. The highest rates occur among:
- Sexually active women under age 25
- Sexually active men who have sex with men (MSM)
- People who exchange sex for money or drugs
- People who do not use condoms consistently
Anyone who engage in sexual activity with new, casual, or multiple partners
Because chlamydia often has no symptoms, regular STI screening is recommended for those at higher risk. Getting tested and treated quickly can greatly reduce the chances of any long-term health effects.
How can you reduce the risk of getting chlamydia?
The most reliable ways to avoid chlamydia include:
- Using condoms correctly every time you have sex
- Limiting your number of sexual partners
- Asking partners to get tested before having sex
- Avoiding sharing towels or personal products with sexual partners
- Getting regularly tested if you are sexually active, especially if under 25
Monogamous relationships where both people have tested negative before intercourse also have a very low risk. While no method is 100% foolproof aside from abstinence, consistent and proper condom usage combined with other precautions provides excellent protection against chlamydia.
Should you get tested for chlamydia?
The CDC recommends the following groups get tested for chlamydia annually or more frequently:
- Sexually active women under age 25
- Sexually active MSM
- Anyone who has a new sexual partner
- People with multiple sexual partners
- People who exchange sex for money or drugs
Pregnant women should also be screened to prevent transmission to the baby. In some cases, partners of people diagnosed with chlamydia may also require testing and treatment.
People who are not in a high risk group can also consider getting tested periodically, especially if engaging in unprotected sex with casual partners of unknown STI status.
How is chlamydia testing done?
There are two main ways to test for chlamydia:
- Urine test: The patient provides a urine sample which is analyzed in the lab. It’s the easiest and most common chlamydia test.
- Swab test: A swab is used to collect a sample from the penis, urethra, cervix, throat, or rectum and sent to the lab.
Results are usually available within a few days to a week. Some clinics can provide rapid test results in a single day.
Urine testing is the most common method to screen for chlamydia. It is non-invasive and convenient. Here’s how it works:
- Patient collects first part of urine stream in a cup
- Sample is sent to a lab for analysis
- Lab technician tests the urine for traces of chlamydia bacteria
- Results provided to doctor or patient within 1-7 days
- Positive results indicate presence of chlamydia infection
Urine tests are very accurate when properly collected. They can be done at a clinic or with at-home testing kits.
Swab tests collect a sample directly from the site of potential infection. Steps include:
- Health care provider collects a swab sample from the penis, vagina, throat, rectum, or other area
- Sample is sent to lab in a tube for testing
- Lab technician analyzes the cells collected on the swab
- Results provided to doctor or patient in 1-7 days
- Positive result indicates chlamydia bacteria present at the sampled site
Swab testing may be done if urine testing isn’t possible or if urine results are ambiguous. It is also used to collect samples from the throat or rectum.
What happens if you test positive for chlamydia?
If you test positive for chlamydia, your health care provider will prescribe antibiotic treatment. Usually this consists of azithromycin (a single 1g oral dose) or doxycycline (a 7-14 day oral course). Sexual partners from the past 2-3 months may also require testing and treatment.
You should avoid sex for 7 days after starting antibiotics. Test of cure is recommended 3 months after finishing treatment to confirm the infection has cleared. Further screening on a yearly basis is advised if you remain at high risk.
Prompt treatment with antibiotics can clear up chlamydia and prevent long-term complications. You can get infected again in the future if exposed, so continuing safe sex practices is important.
How can you prevent spreading chlamydia to partners?
If you have been diagnosed and treated for chlamydia, you can take steps to avoid passing it on to sexual partners:
- Let any partners from the past 2-3 months know they need to get tested
- Avoid all sexual contact for 7 days after starting treatment
- Always use condoms correctly when having sex in the future
- Consider avoiding sex altogether until repeat testing shows the infection has cleared
- Get re-tested 3 months after treatment, and then at least annually
- Communicate with partners about STI testing history and risks
With proper precautions, it is possible to have sex again after treatment without spreading chlamydia. Continuing safe practices and talking to partners openly can help reduce the risk.
What complications can happen with untreated chlamydia?
Without treatment, chlamydia can lead to serious reproductive health consequences:
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID): Untreated chlamydia spreads to the uterus and fallopian tubes, causing inflammation and scarring. This significantly increases the risk of infertility and ectopic pregnancy.
- Cervical infection: Can progress to pelvic inflammatory disease. Also increases chance of cervical cancer later in life.
- Epididymitis: Inflammation of the tubes carrying sperm, causing testicular pain, fever, and, rarely, infertility in men.
- Proctitis: Inflammation of the rectum from anal sex can cause discharge, pain, and bleeding.
- Infertility: Scarring of the fallopian tubes can block passage of eggs. Men may experience blocked sperm ducts.
- Reactive arthritis: Joint pain and eye inflammation develops in a small percentage of people with untreated chlamydia.
- Neonatal infection: Babies can contract chlamydia during childbirth, leading to eye infections or pneumonia.
Prompt antibiotic treatment helps avoid these complications. People with ongoing symptoms or re-infection should get re-evaluated by their doctor for underlying problems.
- Chlamydia spreads through unprotected oral, vaginal, or anal sex, not through towel usage alone.
- Towels only pose a minimal transmission risk if used right after sex before washing.
- Get tested if engaging in unprotected sex, especially if under 25 or with multiple partners.
- Chlamydia is easily cured with antibiotics if caught early before complications develop.
- Use condoms and communicate with partners to prevent recurring infections.
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Table data source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020 STD Surveillance Report
Chlamydia is a common sexually transmitted infection. Using contaminated towels alone rarely transmits chlamydia. Unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone infected is the primary route of infection. Anyone sexually active should get regular STI testing. If diagnosed with chlamydia, antibiotic treatment and partner notification help avoid complications. With proper precautions, chlamydia can usually be cured without long-term health effects.