Syphilis is one of the three most commonly reported sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Between 2017 and 2018, there were more than 115,000 cases. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by a bacteria known as Treponema pallidum.
Treatments are available but first what are the signs?
The first sign that you have syphilis is a small and painless sore. This sore can appear on sexual organs, the rectum, or inside the mouth. Some people may not even notice these sores at first. Syphilis treatment can help after a diagnosis.
This disease can be hard to diagnose because someone can have it and not show symptoms for years. If untreated for a long time, syphilis can cause major damage to important organs such as the heart and brain.
This disease can only be spread sexually, through direct contact with syphilitic chancres. You cannot get syphilis in other ways like sharing a toilet or wearing another person’s clothes.
There are four stages of syphilis: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary. It is most infectious in the first two stages.
This stage happens around three to four weeks after a person contracts the disease. The chancre sore will appear wherever the bacteria entered the body.
Generally this sore will pop up around three weeks after infection. In some cases, it can take between 10 and 90 days to show up. This sore will remain on the body for about two to six weeks.
During the second stage, a person with syphilis may experience skin rashes and a sore throat. The rash can occur anywhere on the body and won’t itch. Some won’t notice the rash, but it can usually be found on the palms.
Secondary syphilis sometimes gets mistaken for another condition because the symptoms can go away without treatment. Even if the symptoms go away, syphilis will not. Other symptoms of syphilis include:
- swollen lymph nodes
- weight loss
- hair loss
- aching joints
Latent, otherwise known as the hidden stage of syphilis, happens when there are no noticeable symptoms. The infection will remain in the body.
This stage is usually the longest because it can last for years. Once this stage is over, syphilis will progress into the tertiary stage.
The tertiary stage is the last stage of infection. This is the most damaging stage.
If you don’t receive syphilis treatment, you have a higher chance of entering this stage. It can happen years, sometimes even decades, after the infection happens.
Tertiary syphilis could cost you your life. Other major outcomes include:
- Memory loss
- Destruction of bone
- Heart disease
- Infection of the brain or spinal cord
The first two stages of syphilis are the easiest to treat because it can be done with just a penicillin injection. This antibiotic is usually an effective syphilis treatment.
Those allergic to penicillin can be treated with doxycycline, azithromycin, or ceftriaxone.
The later stages of syphilis cannot be reversed. The damage that is done will remain. The bacteria can be killed, but the treatment will be focused on easing pain by requiring more penicillin.
You must avoid sexual contact during syphilis treatment. Resuming sexual activity can happen once treatment is completed. Treating syphilis can heal all the sores on your body.
Men who have sex with other men account for the majority of people who contract syphilis. But, syphilis rates in heterosexual men and women are rising.
The total number of reported syphilis cases, including all stages, increased 13,3% during 2017-2018. In the United States, 35,063 cases were reported in 2018. This is a 14.9% increase compared to 2017, and a 71.4% increased compared to 2014.
25-29-year-old males had the highest syphilis rates in 2018. African Americans had the highest reported cases among all other races/ethnicities.
Increasing syphilis rates are not just an issue in the United States. Syphilis around the world is also increasing.
Belgium, France, Germany, and more have seen an increased rate in syphilis cases. The lowest rate was in Croatia and the highest rate was in Denmark where 13.7 per 100,000 people were infected.
In 1999, 12 million people were infected by syphilis. More than 90% of the cases were in the developing world.
Those with syphilis have an increased chance of getting HIV. The chancre sore can make it easier for HIV to enter the body.
People who have HIV can experience different syphilis symptoms. Recognizing syphilis symptoms may be more difficult for those who also have HIV.
The only sure way to prevent from contracting syphilis and any other sexually transmitted disease is to abstain from sex and sexual practices. Other ways to combat the increasing syphilis levels include:
- Maintaining longterm monogamy with a trusted partner
- Using a condom (this only protects from genital sores)
- Using a dental dam or plastic square during oral sex
- Avoiding sharing sex toys
- Refraining from drugs and alcohol that could lead to unsafe sex practices
- Regularly get screened for STIs
- Talk to your partners about their results
- Avoid sharing needles
If you contract syphilis once, you can get it again. If syphilis treatment removes the infection from the body, it is still possible to contract it again (so always use safe practices).
Practicing safe sex is key to combatting the increasing syphilis levels and keeping you safe. Although curable with syphilis treatment, this infection should not be taken lightly. The serious damage it could cause is one of the reasons why it is important to try to avoid contracting syphilis.
If you want to know more about worldwide infection rates, read up on the role syphilis antigen reagents are used to test donated blood and patients in the year 2020 and beyond.