You might be thinking: No one actually gets syphilis anymore, right? Wrong. While syphilis all but disappeared in the early 2000s, it’s been on the rise ever since. In fact, the number of syphilis cases in the U.S. nearly doubled from 2005 to 2013—and was even higher in 2015 (the highest since it’s been since the 90s).
The good thing is syphilis can be cured if it’s caught early enough. But if you don’t get treated, it can cause serious health problems and even death.
How You Get It
You get syphilis by coming into contact with a syphilis sore or rash during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Though syphilis is much more common in men, particularly gay and bisexual men, women aren’t immune. And because syphilis can be spread from a mother to her unborn baby, it’s especially important for women to protect themselves and get tested.
What’s It Like?
Syphilis has so many different symptoms that it earned the nickname the “great imitator.” This, of course, makes it difficult to pin down.
The primary stage usually involves a small, painless sore (called a chancre) on your vagina, anus, penis, or scrotum. Most people just get one, making it easy to miss. The sore is extremely contagious but will go away on its own after about three to six weeks. Because syphilis sores disappear, people don’t always get tested.
The secondary stage is a little more obvious. Instead of a single sore, you’ll get multiples—or a rough, red or brownish rash—on one or more parts of the body. Just like the primary stage, the rash will go away without treatment.
“With this stage of syphilis, the symptoms become more generalized,” says Yesmean Wahdan, M.D., the associate medical director of Bayer Women’s Healthcare. “Patients will have fever, swollen glands, malaise, sore throat, and visual impairment.”
Once that clears up, there’s the latent stage—called so because there are no symptoms, sometimes for years. But without treatment, it may return.
Late-stage syphilis, which can happen 10 to 20 years after that initial sore, is more persistent and even less pleasant—but only about 15 percent of people with syphilis actually get to this point.
This is the scary part, when the disease starts to affect your internal organs—the brain, nerves, heart, and joints—and can eventually cause paralysis, gradual blindness, dementia, and death.
How Serious Is It?
Unfortunately, this is a serious one, especially because it’s easy to miss or ignore.
What Can I Do?
Talk to your partner and practice safe sex.
“Prevention is the best defense against STIs like syphilis,” says Sherry Ross, M.D., a gynecologist based in Santa Monica. “Male and female condoms can help reduce your risk.”
But because sores can pop up in places not covered by a condom, protection isn’t 100 percent guaranteed.
Luckily, syphilis is easily treated with penicillin. Again, it’s important to catch it early, since antibiotics can’t reverse any of the damage already done by the disease. If you’re getting treated, don’t start having sex again until your sores have healed. It’s also important to note that getting syphilis once doesn’t make you immune; you can get it again.
The number of people infected with three major STDs, including syphilis, is at an all-time high (yikes!). We’re tackling common misconceptions about STIs and STDs to help #ShattertheSTIgma. Because getting tested should be NBD.