For centuries syphilis was the bogey-man of Europe (and probably other parts of the world—but I can only speak of Europe for a certainty). In fact, it would not in anyway be an exaggeration to call syphilis the HIV of 15th century Europe.
Today, syphilis is far less of a threat. The development of effective antibiotics in the early 1900s turned what had been a horrific death sentence into, for many people, a minor annoyance. However, if left untreated the “French Disease” is just as deadly as ever.
Prevention of syphilis is brutally simple: don’t have sex with anyone who has syphilis. If you don’t know whether or not someone has syphilis either don’t have sex with them of use a condom. Using a condom reduces your risk of infection, but does not eliminate the risk. Syphilis can be transmitted through vaginal, anal, and oral sex.
Syphilis can be cured with antibiotics, no matter how long you have been infected. However, if left untreated for too long syphilis can cause permanent damage.
Syphilis occurs in several stages.
- In first stage syphilis an infected person develops sores in the area where they were first infected. Usually the sore will appear in or on the penis, vulva, vagina, anus or mouth, but can appear anywhere on or around the genitals and mouth. These sores are red, firm, and painless and will fade on their own after a few weeks. These sores are the primary source of contagion, but they can be hidden in vaginal folds, under foreskin, inside the anus, under the tongue, and in other areas. Lack of visible sores does not mean an infection isn’t present.
- Second stage syphilis occurs within six months of the infection. The most common symptom is a rash on the hands and feet, though rashes can occur on other parts of the body as well. Some people have no rashes and no symptoms. When other symptoms do occur they include:
- swollen lymph glands
- sore throat
- patchy hair loss
- weight loss
- muscle aches
- After second stage syphilis will go latent for 10-30 years. Sometimes it stays latent, but often it develops into late stage syphilis. This is the scary one. In late stage syphilis symptoms include loss of muscle coordination, paralysis, numbness, blindness, and dementia. Additionally, the disease will attack and damage internal organs. Disfigurement can occur as the disease eats away at muscle and bones.
The biggest “complication” of syphilis is death as the internal organs shut down and your body just stops working. If the infection is treated during the first, second or latent stages, the possible complications are usually minimal. If treatment doesn’t occur until the late stages, then there are innumerable possible complications depending on the type and severity of damage done by the infection. Loss of heart or lung function, nerve damage, paralysis, muscle weakness, and a number of other complications are possible.
Syphilis may just be the post child for STI testing—easy to treat if caught, easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it, and absolutely devastating if untreated.
Go back to The Long List of STIs
Learn more: Safer Sex for the Non-Monogamous