D Gregory Smith

Get To Know Syphilis (Before It Knows You)

Filed By D Gregory Smith | March 24, 2010 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: penis sores, STD symptoms, STD's, STD's and HIV, Syphilis, Syphilis facts

My post on "astonishing" HIV and Syphilis rates prompted a lot of creative, passionate and thoughtful discussion. The comments were mostly centered on HIV, but syphilis is worthy of some special attention since on its own, it can create a host of problems when undiagnosed and untreated. Syphilis infection (as does any STD or genital injury) also increases risk for transmission of HIV and other STD's, so I wanted to give syphilis a shot at the spotlight.

Maybe you know it as the disease that likely killed Napoleon. Maybe you know it because you or a friend or partner have had it. Maybe you don't know it at all. Maybe you have it and don't know it - which, in fact, is not uncommon.

Although persons can often tell when things are not right (especially if there's a large weeping sore on your genitalia), people can have syphilis for years without any symptoms. That is why, if you are sexually active (and/or pregnant), you should have the simple blood test regularly (at the very least annually) with a check up. It's best to get a test.

Syphilis is caused by a bacteria, so it is relatively easy to eradicate in its early stages with antibiotics. But the longer you have it, the harder it is to get rid of. It can get very nasty in its later stages- even causing death. And, as with all STD's, the longer you have it and don't know it, the easier it is to pass it on.

Want to know more? (and maybe see some nasty NSFW pictures?)

Well, I'm here to help.

Syphilis is caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. It has often been called "the great imitator" because it's signs and symptoms are often indistinguishable from those of other diseases. In gay men, some of these symptoms can be mistaken for "irregular wear and tear" along the shaft or head of the penis and the rectum, especially for those who prefer rougher types of sex.

Syphilis can be transmitted through direct contact with a syphilis sore, by blood and other bodily fluids, through oral, anal and vaginal sex, or by a mother to her unborn baby. It is not passed casually through toilet seats, towels, showers or utensils.

Symptoms are the same in men and women and may take up to three months to appear after infection:

First stage:

  • Painless sores (chancres) on the penis, vagina, mouth or anus (usually appear within 21 days)at the place where the bacteria entered the body. They can take 3 to 6 weeks to heal and are highly infectious.

  • Sometimes none at all, so see a medical professional regularly for testing- it can be spread by someone who shows/feels no symptoms, so it's best to get a test.

Second Stage :

  • Rash on the body

  • Flu-like symptoms, including swollen glands

  • flat, wart-like growths around the vulva in women and the anus in all genders

  • patchy hair loss

  • white patches on the roof of the mouth and/or tongue

  • Sometimes none at all, so see a medical professional regularly for testing- it can be spread by someone who shows/feels no symptoms, so it's best to get a test.

Keep in mind that these symptoms may go away after a few weeks, but can occur for years if untreated. Just because the symptoms have disappeared, the infection has not. If syphilis infection is treated at either the First or Second Stage, the infection can be easily cured.

Third (Tertiary) Stage

If a person has not received treatment during the first two stages, syphilis progresses to the third stage. Symptoms are generally not experienced, but it is at this stage that the bacteria starts doing serious damage to the heart, brain and nervous system, which may cause blindness, dementia, paralysis and even death. Even at this stage, it can be cured, however the damage done to your body will probably not be reversible.

Prevention is Key.

Syphilis can be prevented by:

  • Using condoms and practicing safe sex.

  • Knowing your status and the status of your partner.

  • Getting tested regularly. It's best to get a test.

Remember, this is a CURABLE disease- you just need to get to a healthcare professional (most STD Clinics will even test you for free). Get tested at least once a year for all the bugs your life may bring you into contact with- because it's not just your health, it's the health of your community.

Oh, and those pictures I mentioned? Try here. Warning! NSDL (Not safe during lunch).

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Juston Thouron Juston Thouron | March 24, 2010 6:14 PM

Greg, I am wondering if our government has shown a pattern of being avoidant in it's funding of STD prevention programs in general as compared to other communicable diseases? If true, that may help explain HIV/AIDS avoidant policies of the past as well. Are there any STD-wide studies of this?

The reason I ask is that our country is so puritanical regarding sex in general that I wonder if data exists demonstrating an anti-sexual, pro-abstinence bias on a policy and political level. As well as the influences different administrations have on this issue (ie. Bush Sr. vs. Clinton vs. Bush Jr. vs. Obama, etcetera). Such data, in my mind, could also provide direct evidence of policy makers turning personal religious dogma into public policy, with disastrous results.

I'm not sure myself- but I'll look into it.

Really, the only massively funded things are terrorist-type diseases like swine flu or SARS (remember that?) that could effectively wipe out people based on proximity, NOT ACTIONS- and sexual actions are particularly avoided by mainstream health programs because they're hot buttons calling into question morality and values, doctrines and dogmas, etc.

If HIV or syphilis were spread by touching money, you can bet we'd have had a cure for YEARS now....

Juston Thouron Juston Thouron | March 24, 2010 10:45 PM

Thanks Greg. Thought about this have been nagging me for awhile, but I haven't found any relevant studies.

I may be over thinking this, but with the American public waking up to health care as a right not a privilege, and from the CDC's conclusions regarding necessary changes to government HIV prevention efforts for MSM, maybe Kathleen Sebelius would be amenable to looking at such data if in fact it existed. Or rather, it may come from re-examining/re-interpreting existing data.

If 'data' can empirically demonstrate that government inaction directly contributes to STD proliferation in general (not just HIV) due to policy making being based on the 'hot buttons' you pointed out, maybe pressure can be exerted on members of Congress/Sebelius to get those ideas out of the policy loop entirely and introduce a morality-neutral, health-first policy approach.

With a change in policy comes a change in directives and perhaps funding for prevention and cures.

Being able to prove these links empirically could make for powerful arguments for policy changes.

GOP attitude to STDs isn't too much different from the Pope's attitude on condom use in Africa.
And that's a non sequitur if ever.

Al Capone died from syphilis contracted in his youth. He had an unpleasant death.

Today's ignorance is a severe case of Twitter-itis and belief that STDs don't mutate. They do and with a vengeance. Maybe the message is lost due to texting and belief science will have a cure for all our sexual woes. "O filii et filiae!"


The rate of syphilis would be much higher if not for the abundant use of antibiotics, often for completely unrelated conditions. Ordinary physicians don't think about syphilis when seeing a vulvar ulcer - many assume that any ulcer in a younger sexually active woman must be herpes, and treat empirically. Most of the time, the docs are right, but syphilis is still around, and seen in the heterosexual population as well.

(a few days ago the pathology laboratory where I work received a vulvar ulcer biopsy that turned out to be a syphilitic chancre - teeming with organisms - the male sex partner had a similar lesion, not treated (yet))

I'm not going to follow through to those pictures, but if I notice painless sores, I'll google "syphilis."

Thanks for the info, Greg!