STI 16
Sexual Health
Sexually Transmitted Infections and STDs

Syphilis: What You Need to Know Today

[Author’s note: Welcome to Part 6 of our seven-part series about Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), sometimes called venereal diseases or Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs). The good news is that as I write this in 2017, researchers are discovering not only new facts, but also new treatments for STIs. The not-so-good-news is that some STIs that were once nearly eradicated are on the rise again and others are becoming resistant to treatment. Click here to read Part 1 of the series. Click here to read Part 2 of the series. Click here to read Part 3 of the series. Click here to read Part 4 of the series, Click here to read Part 5 of the series. Come back on Wednesday, September 13th for Part 7, the final installment in the series.]

Syphilis is a potentially deadly infection caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. Ever since the discovery of penicillin in the 1940’s, the disease has been quickly cured with this antibiotic for those not allergic to the drug. As a result, the incidence of syphilis dropped dramatically. For close to two decades after the turn of this century, syphilis was nearly eradicated. However, an alarming report by Jan Hoffman published in The New York Times on August 24th 2017 detailed a resurgence of syphilis outbreaks in Oklahoma City.

Hoffman’s impressive on-the-ground research focused on an area rife with drugs and prostitution, but a June 24th 2016 article in Nature Biology by Natasha Arora reported that according to the World Health Organization (WHO) syphilis has been re-emerging globally. Even more disturbing, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) reported on August 27th 2017 that there is a growing crisis in congenital syphilis in which the disease is transmitted from a pregnant woman to her baby. The baby is most often stillborn or dies as a newborn, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Because syphilis can have a latency period with no symptoms for 15 years or more, getting tested if you are sexually active is a very good idea. If syphilis is not treated, the infection can cause organ damage, blindness, dementia, and death.

Prevention

As with any STI, abstaining from sexual intercourse with an infected person is paramount. As I’ve stressed in earlier installments of the thirdAGE series on STIs, knowing the sexual history of a potential partner is critical to your safety. Asking someone for a sexual history or requesting testing may not be very romantic, but your health should be your principal concern. Remember, a new partner could have been infected during previous relationships without knowing it. A simple, inexpensive blood test will let you know that all is well – or not! In addition, in this era of information overload via multiple media sources parents and grandparents need to make every effort to find out whether their teenagers are sexually active, and possibly engaging in risky behaviors such as not using condoms as barrier protection and having multiple partners. A 2017 study done at the University of Buckingham in the UK found that exposure at a young age to any media depicting risky sexual behavior can influence teens to adopt those behaviors.

Symptoms

 If symptoms of syphilis do occur, they can include:

  • a reddish rash that doesn’t itch and may appear in various places on the body including the neck, the hands, and the soles of the feet 
(Trivia: The high, ruffled collar worm in Shakespeare’s day may have been a cover-up for the rash on the neck that was dubbed the “Collar of Venus” or “love collar”).
  • a chancre sore or sores on the mouth, genitals, or anus. These are highly contagious. This is part of the primary phase that resolves on it’s own although the infection is still there and latent for many years. (Note: A chancre sore, pronounced “shanker”, is not the same as a canker sore or fever blister often associated with infection from the herpes simplex virus, HSV.)
  • fever
  • swollen lymph glands
  • sore throat
  • bald patches
  • headaches
  • unexplained weight loss
  • aching muscles
  • unexplained fatigue

Diagnosis

Your doctor will take material from a chancre sore if one is visible and examine the material with a microscope. However, for asymptomatic syphilis a blood test is required.

Treatment

Penicillin is still the gold standard, unless you’re allergic, but the CDC reports that allergic people can be desensitized. This is fortunate, since there is no other treatment than penicillin that is effective for syphilis.

Again, come back on Wednesday, September 13th for Part 7, the final installment in the thirfAGE series on STIs!

Sondra Forsyth is Co-Editor-in-Chief of thirdAge.com.