Youth & Community Health Information from The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Syphilis Sucks

Syphilis Sucks

Syphilis sucks. Syphilis is not cool. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease that, if untreated, can kill you.

The disease itself is caused by bacteria known as spirochetes. These bacteria can enter your body in multiple ways. The first, obvious way is through sexual intercourse with an infected person. Other, albeit, rarer ways include blood transfusion with an infected person, sharing a dirty needle with an infected person, and sharing a kiss with an infected person if the disease has formed in or around their mouth. Now, syphilis has many clever and subtle symptoms that may be difficult to point out either because you don’t know it’s there, or because it resembles another disease. What follows are the stages of syphilis and what symptoms (if there are any) are involved.

The first stage of syphilis is the primary stage. This stage has the very first sign of syphilis, a single, dry, firm, painless sore called a chancre. Chancres form wherever the spirochetes have entered the body, which is usually on the vagina, penis, rectum, or mouth. The bacteria can move from person to person if direct contact is made with the chancre during sexual intercourse. Since these sores don’t hurt and usually form in hard-to-see places, they may be difficult to point out, and someone could pass on or receive syphilis without even knowing it. After a few weeks, the sores go away, but that doesn’t mean that the disease has as well. If left untreated, syphilis will enter the next stage, called the secondary stage.

During the secondary stage, the person will break out in a rash, and may experience symptoms of the flu. The problem here is that many people will think that they have the flu, not syphilis, and therefore, won’t see a doctor to get it diagnosed. Not only that, but the rashes that they receive resemble other diseases, making it all the more tricky to point out. This has earned syphilis the name, “the Great Imitator”. Much like the chancres, the secondary stage symptoms will go away with or without treatment, but if still untreated, syphilis will continue to worsen, eventually entering the third stage, called the latent stage.

During the latent stage of syphilis, the disease enters a “hidden” state where the spirochetes are still in the host’s body, but will not display any symptoms. This means that the host will most likely think that they’re fine, and will have no way of knowing what’s happening without a diagnosis. This latent stage can last for many years before entering the final stage, called the tertiary stage.

The tertiary stage is the most destructive stage of syphilis. At this point, the spirochetes have spread all throughout the body, and begin to destroy internal organs, literally eating away at them. This can cause gummata, which are large sores on or in the skin; cardiovascular syphilis, which can affect the heart and blood vessels; and neurosyphilis, which affects the brain. The host can suffer from heart problems, mental problems, blindness, and other things, including death.

If you believe that you, or a partner you have had sex with may have syphilis, it’s a good idea to go to your doctor immediately. They can diagnose you through a blood test to determine if you have the disease. In its early stages, syphilis can be easily treated with antibiotics. Anyone who has had syphilis for a while will need a longer period of treatment. If a person is treated after they’ve entered the tertiary stage, any damage done to the body cannot be undone, but they still save themselves from further damage.

Syphilis is no joke, and a fair share of people had to learn that the hard way. In 2006, there were over 36,000 reported cases of syphilis in the United States, with about 9,750 cases of primary and secondary stage syphilis. ( Even newborns weren’t safe, with 349 cases of children born with syphilis is 2006. When compared to the 339 cases in 2005, that’s not good.

But despite these high numbers, syphilis can be easily avoided. Like any STD, it can be prevented by just not having sex. For those who decide to, however, it’s best to use some form of protection such as condoms, as well as not having too many sexual partners. These may sound obvious to most, but they’re necessary precautions. Syphilis isn’t something to be toyed with, unless you want to end up like these people.

Syphilis is a very interesting disease. It’s like an assassin, using subtlety and deception to bring its victim as close to death as possible. What makes it so difficult to notice is that most of its symptoms are painless, resemble other diseases, or just aren’t there at all. By the time you do notice that it’s there, bacteria are already eating away at you. Again, if you believe that you have syphilis, go see your doctor. Even if it turns out you don’t, better safe than sorry. So just remember, be safe. Be smart. Be sensible.


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[photo caption: Syphilitic skulls from the collection of the Mütter Museum. © The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.]