Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection. It is curable, but if left untreated, it can cause long-term health complications. This article covers everything you need to know about syphilis and how to protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections.
Syphilis occurs and evolves in four different stages: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary. Each stage causes different symptoms.
- Primary Stage of Syphilis
The first sign of syphilis, which occurs in the primary stage, is a single sore or cluster of sores on the body. The sore develops wherever syphilis enters the body, typically around or on the vagina, anus, penis, rectum, and mouth.
In most cases, the sores are round, hard, and painless. Because they are painless, you may not know they are present. Sores in the primary stage will go away on their own. However, you still need treatment to stop syphilis from progressing.
- Secondary Stage of Syphilis
The second stage of syphilis generally begins with one or more rashes on the body. Rashes can emerge while the initial sore is present or weeks after it has healed. These rashes can occur in or on the vagina, anus, mouth, hands, and feet. The rash can be red or brown, and it will feel rough.
Other symptoms may occur alongside the rash. Symptoms can include fever, sore throat, headaches, hair loss, weight loss, body aches, and tiredness. Similarly to the primary stage, symptoms in the secondary stage will go away on their own. However, without treatment, syphilis can progress.
- Latent Stage
When syphilis is in the latent stage, there are no visible symptoms or signs. Syphilis can stay present in the body for years without treatment.
- Tertiary Stage
While uncommon, syphilis can progress to the tertiary stage if not properly treated. The tertiary stage of syphilis occurs ten to thirty years after the initial infection. It can cause damage to essential organ systems, including the brain, heart, and nervous system. It can be fatal in severe cases.
Syphilis can be contracted in various ways. It can be spread through direct contact with a syphilis sore during oral, anal, or vaginal sex. Infection can also occur through casual contact with objects such as bathtubs, hot tubs, swimming pools, doorknobs, toilet seats, shared clothes, and shared utensils. A pregnant woman with syphilis can give the STI to her unborn baby.
Healthcare providers can test for syphilis by taking a blood test. In some cases, a provider may take a fluid sample from an active sore.
In most cases, syphilis is treated by antibiotics. While syphilis sores and rashes can heal on their own, treatment stops the infection from progressing to latent and tertiary stages. Treatment may not be able to reverse the damage syphilis has caused, so it is essential to get treated in the early stages.
Common STIs, including syphilis, were at a record high before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, social distancing guidelines throughout the pandemic disrupted the documentation of sexually transmitted infections, resulting in inaccurate STI statistics.
For example, syphilis cases significantly dropped at the beginning of the pandemic. This trend was likely due to reduced screening and stressed resources, not an actual reduction of syphilis infections. In actuality, new syphilis infections likely went unreported, leading to an accelerated spread of the STI. This means someone could have spread syphilis without knowing it.
As healthcare facilities reopened, testing for STIs became accessible again. By the end of 2020, syphilis cases increased by 7%, demonstrating that the pandemic failed to slow the infection’s spread.
Anyone who has sex is at risk of getting syphilis. However, there is an increased risk for those who:
- Have HIV
- Have a partner who has syphilis
- Are bisexual or gay men
- Are between the ages of 15 and 24
Various factors put young people at an increased risk of getting an STI like syphilis. First, STI testing may be less accessible to people ages 15 to 24, making them less likely to get their recommended tests. In addition, young people are simultaneously more likely to have multiple partners but less likely to discuss sexual health with them. This can lead to young people unknowingly transmitting syphilis to their partners.
It is important to discuss your sexual history and health with your partner. Doing so can protect you against sexually transmitted diseases or infections.
The best way to protect yourself from syphilis is by refraining from oral, vaginal, and anal sex. It is always okay to say no to sex.
There are also preventative steps you can take if you are sexually active, including:
- Using condoms correctly each time you have sex
- Being in a mutually monogamous relationship with someone who does not have syphilis
- Getting tested for STIs regularly
When using a condom, there is still a chance of getting syphilis. This is because condoms may not completely cover syphilis sores.
Syphilis is a curable sexually transmitted infection. If left untreated, however, syphilis can progress and cause severe health complications. Many new cases of syphilis likely went unreported throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. It is essential to practice safe sex and get tested regularly to protect yourself from syphilis.