The Great Imitator—Syphilis rates on the rise

Perhaps you’ve heard the rumor that Christopher Columbus brought syphilis to America, or the true fact the Al Capone contracted it early on in his gangster career and went crazy from it during his years in Alcatraz. You may believe there is little cause for concern about this disease in your own life—after all, isn’t it pretty rare?

Well, it used to be. Unfortunately, rates of syphilis have rapidly and drastically increased in the last 20 years—even more so in the last two years. From 2001-2017, national syphilis rates rose by over 450%. From 2016-2018, at Choices Medical alone, the number of clients we treated for syphilis increased by 1067%. Here’s what you need to know:

How is syphilis passed?

Syphilis is passed through vaginal, oral, or anal sex with an infected person. A pregnant woman can also pass syphilis to her unborn child in the womb.

What are the symptoms?

Unfortunately, syphilis can be a sneaky infection—its nickname is “The Great Imitator” because it mimics symptoms of other sicknesses or ailments. That’s why getting tested and treated right away is so important! It comes in various stages that get progressively more serious as the infection incubates.

Stage One: Chancres appear at the site of infection, often on the genitals or mouth. These are flat, open, painless sores that usually go away on their own within a few weeks. However, since they don’t hurt and are sometimes in locations that are hard to see (inside of the vagina, rectum, or foreskin of a penis), many people don’t recognize this first symptom at all.

Stage Two: This can look like various things. For some, it may manifest as a rash covering parts of the body, including the palms of the hands or soles of the feet. Some people also experience hair loss, muscle aches, a fever, sore throat and swollen lymph nodes. These symptoms may come and go over the course of a few weeks or even up to a year.

Stage Three: If someone infected with syphilis has not gotten tested and treated at this point, the infection may lay dormant for up to several years. This means that no symptoms would show, but the infection is still living in the body. As it continues to live, however, it can progress into “tertiary syphilis,” causing brain and nerve damage, blindness, heart disease, blood, liver, bone, and joint damage, and even death. About 15-30% of people infected with syphilis who don’t get treated will experience these complications.

Who is at risk?

According to the CDC, men who have sex with men account for the majority of syphilis cases. However, in the last five years, rates have increased among both men and women, and the syphilis rate among women has more than doubled. Infected women who are or become pregnant are at risk for passing the infection to their baby, called “congenital syphilis.” Up to 40% of infants infected with syphilis are stillborn.

How do I stay safe?

The only 100% effective way to protect yourself against any kind of STI is to abstain from all types of sex. However, if you are sexually active, especially with more than one partner, it is important to get tested regularly so that if you are positive for an infection, you can be treated as soon as possible. Because syphilis is a bacterial infection, if it’s caught early on it can be easily cured, sometimes requiring only a single injection of antibiotics. The longer a person waits to receive treatment, however, the harder it is to cure, and will not necessarily alleviate any damage that the infection has already done.

Though there are many STIs that sexually active people need to be aware of, this one has especially been on the rise and has deadly consequences if not treated soon enough. Don’t be fooled by “The Great Imitator”… come in in and get tested at Choices Medical!

Resource available upon request.

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