One of the most concerning sexually transmitted diseases is syphilis. Most people don’t know they have it because it can mimic other illnesses. In the United States, syphilis is one of the most prevalent sexually transmitted infections. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of syphilis surged by 27% in 2021.
People diagnosed with syphilis are often surprised to find out that they have an STD. If you’re worried that you got a positive syphilis test result, you should know that, with the right type of antibiotics, it’s curable. First, let’s learn more about syphilis to determine what treatment options are available and suitable for you.
What is syphilis?
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection. It’s a highly infectious disease spread via sexual contact. In most cases, the infected person is often unaware that they’re sick and unknowingly transfers it to their sexual partner. This infection can affect anyone, regardless of age, sex, and health status.
A person can get syphilis through sexual skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. When an individual’s vulva, vagina, penis, anus, or mouth comes into contact with someone’s syphilis sores, be it through oral sex or vaginal or anal intercourse, they may get the bacteria that causes it.
Infected individuals can’t spread syphilis through casual contact. Sharing food or beverages, hugging, holding hands, coughing, sneezing, sharing towels, or sitting on public toilet seats won’t give you the disease.
Syphilis symptoms per stage
There are three stages of syphilis: primary, secondary, and tertiary. The symptoms often appear three weeks after getting infected and may vary depending on the stage of the infection.
People in the early stage of syphilis have open but painless ulcers or sores called chancres. These appear on your genitals, anus, rectum, or in and around the mouth about three weeks after exposure.
The sores will resolve in six weeks, often leaving no scars. Although treatment isn’t necessary, taking medication will help reduce the chances for the infection to progress to the next stage.
If the infection remains active between six weeks to six months, it’ll progress to the second stage. This phase often lasts between one to three months. A pink, red, or reddish-brown rash will appear on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.
The rash may resemble those caused by other diseases, so a doctor’s visit is necessary to determine if it’s syphilis or not. Like primary syphilis, this stage may resolve even without treatment.
Other symptoms in the second stage include:
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Sore throat
- Patchy hair loss
- Headaches and body aches
- Extreme tiredness
Not all people will experience latent syphilis. Some may go directly to the tertiary stage. In this phase, infected individuals won’t show or experience any signs or symptoms. The infection isn’t contagious but may affect the brain, heart, nerves, and bones because the bacteria is still present and active. This stage can last for several years.
If syphilis goes untreated, it may move to the life-threatening stage of the infection. The infection may affect the heart, brain, and nervous system.
Other symptoms of this stage are:
- Loss of control in muscle movements
- Vision or hearing problems
If you experience any of the following, get medical attention immediately.
Depending on how long you’ve had the infection, syphilis treatment time and cost may vary. Syphilis that hasn’t been present for more than two years is treated with an injection of penicillin in the buttocks or a 10- to 14-day course of antibiotics if penicillin isn’t an option. If you wait too long, it may cause lifelong harm to your heart and brain, even after the infection is gone.
Here are things to remember when treating syphilis:
- If you’ve had syphilis for less than a year, one dosage of penicillin should be enough to clear it up. In the case of a penicillin allergy, another antibiotic, such as doxycycline, may be prescribed.
- You’ll require more dosages if you’re in a later stage of the disease.
- For syphilis treatment in pregnancy, the doctor would most likely recommend desensitization, which allows pregnant women to take medication safely.
- Do not engage in sexual activity until the infection has entirely subsided. Your sexual partners should get an STD test to make sure to determine if they need treatment as well.
Additional note: Several hours after the initial treatment, some people with syphilis may experience a Jarisch-Herxheimer response, an immune system reaction that should resolve within 24 hours. Possible symptoms may include:
- upset stomach
- Joint and muscular discomfort
After treating the infection, it’s possible to contract syphilis again. To lower your chances of it recurring:
- Avoid having close contact with anyone whom you know or suspect is infected
- Use a condom when you have sexual intercourse, especially if you don’t know if your sexual partner is infected.
Even if you and your sex partner appear to be in perfect health, using condoms every time you have sex is one of the best strategies to help avoid STIs and STDs.
Syphilis is not easy to detect. Sexually active people are encouraged to get regular STD testing. It can be uncomfortable, but early detection can reduce the risk of developing worse sexually transmitted infections and diseases. There are sexual health clinics, urgent care centers, and medical facilities offering discreet but reliable STD-related services. Getting tested can help you manage your health and gain access to treatment options that are suitable for you.