How is syphilis spread and why is it important to get tested?
Syphilis is a sexually-transmitted infection that can cause serious health issues if left untreated and can increase the likelihood of contracting another sexually transmitted infection. Syphilis is spread through contact of a person who has syphilis. The sores can be on a person's penis, vagina, anus, skin, or inside the cervix or mouth. Although primarily passed through sexual contact, Syphilis can be spread through breaks in the skin and females can pass it to their unborn child if they become pregnant.
In 2011, 80% of the early syphilis cases in Missouri were reported in men who have sex with men (MSM). Syphilis is known as the “great imitator” because if symptoms are present, they can be mistaken for a variety of other medical conditions. However, most people infected with syphilis don’t notice any symptoms at all. The best way to determine if you have syphilis is to get tested.
What are the symptoms?
It can be difficult to know if someone is infected with syphilis because most people with syphilis don’t notice any symptoms at all. There are four stages of syphilis with various symptoms:
1. Primary - The first sign of syphilis is a chancre, or ulcer, that forms where a person was expoised. Many do not notice chancres because they can be painless and be hidden in the affected areas (i.e. inside the mouth, cervix, or anus). The chancre can appear anytime between 10 days to three months of exposure. Although the chancre will go away after a few weeks, the person will still be able to spread the disease.
2. Secondary - symptoms can include a painless sore, a rash primarily on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, patchy hair loss, white spots in the mouth, raised spots in the genital region that look like fleshy warts, mild fever, headache, sore throat, and/or fatigue.
3. Latent - this stage can last a long time with no symptoms present. During this time, those with syphilis cannot spread the disease to anyone else.
4. Late - this stage may occur if a person has been infected for a very long time as the infection is still present and will cause serious health issues if left untreated. Untreated syphilis can cause damage to internal organs including the brain, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones and joints. If you are infected with HIV, the damage to your body can start in a shorter amount of time.
How do you reduce your risk?
To reduce your risk of getting syphilis, use condoms or dental dams every time you have oral, anal or vaginal sex. Even if you practice safer sex, some symptoms of syphilis can be located in areas that aren’t protected by condoms or dental dams and you can still get syphilis. Therefore, syphilis testing is recommended for everyone at least once a year. If you have sex with multiple people or are infected with HIV, syphilis testing is recommended every three to six months. If you are concerned about a possible exposure that happened within the last 90 days, follow-up testing will be necessary to completely rule out that you aren’t infected with syphilis.
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What happens if my test comes back positive?
The good news is syphilis is cureable and treatable with the right antibiotic and correct dosage. The bad news is if goes untreated and causes damage to the body, the damage will remain after treatment. Sites across Saint Louis offer free testing and treatment for syphilis. In order to prevent getting syphilis again, it is necessary for your current and past sex partners to get tested and treated for syphilis. Assistance is available to help you determine who should be contacted and will help contact partners. If a former partner is infected and left untreated, the possibility of you getting the infection again from someone else increases since a lot of people meet their sex partners in the same social circles and places.