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Friday, April 5, 2019

Syphilis makes a comeback: prevention, symptoms and treatment

by Dr. Robert Wool

Blue gloves putting bandage on arm
April is STD Awareness Month, which provides an important opportunity to talk about the continuing prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases, including a dramatic rise in a disease that was once nearly obsolete: syphilis.

Syphilis can be quite insidious because it’s not easy to detect. In its earliest stage, known as primary syphilis, it may only show itself as a small sore or sores around the site of infection, typically near the vagina, penis, anus or mouth. The sores may be internal, which can make them even harder to spot. Even after the sores heal, without treatment, the infection remains in the body.

As syphilis progresses to its secondary stage, symptoms may include a rash, swollen lymph nodes and fever. During the latent stage, there may not be any symptoms. However, by the tertiary stage, a range of serious medical conditions can develop, damaging the brain and nervous system, heart and blood vessels, eyes and internal organs, leading to death.

Syphilis is spread primarily through sexual contact with someone who has the infection. Less commonly, the infection can spread by sharing needles with an infected person, and it’s possible for mothers to pass the infection to their unborn child.

STD screening
Because it’s possible to have syphilis without knowing it, regular testing is essential for those at risk. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends testing for all pregnant women to prevent the spread of infection to the baby. In addition, we recommend annual testing for anyone who has multiple sexual partners.

A simple blood test is required to detect syphilis. Antibiotics typically cure the infection, which is confirmed with another blood test; however, if the disease has progressed to the tertiary stage, any damage done may be irreversible. It is possible to contract syphilis more than once, so ongoing vigilance and testing is necessary.

Our advice is to practice safe sex and have routine testing for syphilis and other STDs. To protect yourself and others, see us promptly about any sore or other health concerns.