Unfortunately, there isn’t a home test you can use to detect it, and the symptoms of chlamydia aren’t considered proof of infection. Testing with a urethral swab, a swab of the cervix or vagina, or a urine test can determine whether you have an infection and require treatment.
We mention self-checks only to emphasize that chlamydia can only be properly diagnosed in the clinic with specific lab tests. You may look up the symptoms of chlamydia, and they are good to be aware of. But there is considerable overlap between them and those of other medical conditions. Also, keep in mind that the majority of people do not have symptoms with a chlamydia infection.
Only 5% to 30% of women and 10% of men will have symptoms with their infection.
Labs and Tests
There are a few different tests that may be done to look for the presence of Chlamydia trachomatis, the bacteria that causes the STD. These can be performed if you have symptoms or as a routine screening if you are sexually active.
The most common tests are nucleic acid amplification tests (NAATs). These can be run on a:
- Urine specimen
- Urethral swab (men)
- Endocervical swab (women)
- Vaginal swab (women)
Healthcare providers and clinics differ in which tests they prefer.
It is possible to test for chlamydia on a urine sample. However, not all practitoners are willing to perform urine tests on women. Many healthcare professionals prefer to use cervical samples, as they have historically been thought to provide more accurate results.
That said, if you are less likely to get a chlamydia test if it requires a swab, ask for a urine test. It may not be quite as reliable as a swab, but it’s still a very good test.
Note that the above list of tests doesn’t include a Pap smear. If you’ve had a recent gynecological exam, which should have involved that test as a matter of standard, don’t assume that you’ve been tested for chlamydia; a Pap cannot detect Chlamydia trachomatis.
Likewise, if you’ve been tested for another sexually transmitted infections (STIs), don’t assume that chlamydia was one of them. Not only does chlamydia require its own test, but the treatments for some of the other STIs are ineffective against chlamydia.
What to Expect
The way that healthcare providers test for chlamydia is somewhat different for women and men. This is due to the locations the bacteria infects in each group.
Your gynecologist will most likely use a speculum to view your cervix. They will retrieve a sample from your cervix using a small swab, which will get sent to a lab.
Less commonly, a vaginal swab may be done. Studies suggest that vaginal swabs that women do themselves are just as accurate (if not more) than those done by healthcare professionals. That said, in most circumstances, a healthcare provider will recommend that they do the swab, whether endocervical or vaginal.
If you are opting for a urine test, be sure to come to your healthcare professional’s office with a full bladder.
Your healthcare provider will either ask you for a urine sample or collect a sample from inside the head of your penis using a small swab. This sample is then sent to a lab for analysis.
Not all practitioners perform urine tests for chlamydia. However, you should feel comfortable asking whether or not getting a urine test for chlamydia is an option. You can also call your healthcare provider in advance to see if urine testing is available.
Chlamydia testing is improving. Tests often come back within just a few hours, allowing rapid treatment of infections.
What About Rectal and Oral Swabs?
While neither rectal nor oral swabs are currently approved for the detection of chlamydia, research suggests that doing these extragenital tests is important.
For example, a 2017 study found that among men who have sex with men (MSM), 13% had a rectal chlamydia infection but only 3.4% had a positive urethral swab. In women in an urban setting in the United States, 3.7% were found to have an extragenital infection. Those under the age of 18 had the highest incidence of extragenital infection.
It’s currently recommended that sexually active women younger than 25 have yearly screening for chlamydia. This can be done at the same time as the yearly Pap smear. More frequent screening may be advisable for adolescents.
For women 25 and older, yearly screening should be done for those at an increased risk, such as those who have a new partner, multiple partners, or are with someone who has had an STD.
Screening has been found to be very effective and to significantly lower the risk of a woman developing pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can lead to infertility.
Men who have sex with men (MSM) should be screened at least annually (both genital and rectal sites of exposure). For those with HIV or multiple partners, screening should be done every three to six months.
Chlamydia increases the risk of becoming infected with HIV. A 2013 study found that regular screening of MSM could reduce the risk of chlamydia and HIV by 15% and 4%, respectively.
While there aren’t specific recommendations for heterosexual males, screening should be strongly considered. Roughly twice as many women as men are diagnosed with chlamydia, most likely due to inadequate testing of men.
Until guidelines are set, heterosexual men who are outside of a long-term monogamous relationship should request testing, preferably on an annual basis, and more often as needed.
There are a number of reasons why healthcare providers fail to test for STDs and why you may need to initiate the discussion and request testing yourself. Even with screening guidelines in place, many cases go untested and undetected.
Make sure to request a chlamydia test, especially if one of your partners has been diagnosed with an STI/STD, or if you are sexually active outside of a long-term mutually monogamous relationship.
Many shy away from such testing because of feelings that they will be judged for their sexual history. Know that chlamydia is extremely common and found in people from all walks of life. It only takes one sexual encounter with one person who carries the bacteria to develop the infection.
If asking your healthcare practitioner for the test is hard for you, consider others’ strategies for broaching the subject. And if you ask and don’t like the response you get, consider finding a new healthcare professional.
Results and Follow-Ups
If you do have a positive test, it’s important to talk to any sexual partners you’ve had in the past two months and suggest that they see a healthcare provider for testing and treatment.
As with any form of lab tests, there is the potential for errors. Even though the sensitivity of chlamydia tests used today is good, they may still miss infections (what’s known as a false-negative result). What this means is that if you have any symptoms, you should follow up with your practitioner—even if you tested negative.
There is also a small risk of false-positive results, in which a person has a positive chlamydia test but does not actually have the infection. This is of less concern in general, as most people tolerate the treatments for chlamydia well. Accidentally treating a few people who do not have the disease is considered better than missing those who do.
Re-Testing After Treatment
Getting re-tested about three months after treatment for chlamydia is recommended for both men and women, even those who know their partners were also treated.
Re-infection is possible, and most cases that are found after treatment are because of this possibility, rather than the failure of the treatment itself.
Pregnant women should be retested three weeks after treatment is completed. Pregnant women at high risk should also consider getting tested again in the third trimester.
Vaginal discharge in women has many causes, ranging from bacterial vaginosis to yeast infections, chlamydia to hormonal changes. Likewise, there is a wide range of conditions that can cause pain with intercourse, bleeding between periods or with intercourse, and more.
For both men and women, pain and burning with urination can have many possible causes, including bladder infections and other STDs.
So, while a healthcare professional may suspect one issue or another, if you present symptoms at all, lab tests are essential to making an accurate chlamydia diagnosis and choosing the appropriate treatment.
In addition, it’s possible for someone to have chlamydia and another infection at the same time, and testing can help sort out if that’s the case. This is known as a co-infection.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I tell if I have chlamydia?
Because chlamydia most often presents without symptoms, it can be very hard to tell if you have the disease. If symptoms appear at all, they may not show up until three weeks after exposure. Self-checks are not a reliable way to diagnose the disease, even if you do have symptoms; you need to see a healthcare provider to get tested.
How do you test for chlamydia?
Chlamydia can be tested for in several ways:
- Urine sample
- Urethral swab (in people with penises)
- Endocervical swab (in people with vaginas)
- Vaginal swab (in people with vaginas)
- Rectal swab
- Oral swab
Some healthcare providers tend to prefer swab testing, as urine specimens are seen as slightly less reliable when testing for chlamydia, though it is still an effective test.
How soon after exposure can I be tested?
At least one week after exposure. But it’s important to note that the incubation period of chlamydia bacteria can vary depending on how quickly the bacteria reproduce, how much bacteria you were exposed to, and where on the body you came into contact with the bacteria.
How long do results take?
The length of time it takes for results to come back depends on the type of test used.
- Urine sample: Typically two to five days
- Swab test: Typically two to three days
How often should I be screened for chlamydia?
Screening guidelines are different depending on your age and sex:
- Sexually active women under the age of 25: Yearly screenings are recommended
- Sexually active women over the age of 25: Yearly screenings are recommended only for those at increased risk
- Men who have sex with men: At least one screening per year is recommended, or every three to six months for those at increased risk
- Heterosexual males: Annual screenings or as-needed screenings should be strongly considered, but aren’t officially recommended at this time