Syphilis: Not Just for the History Books

For the sexually active of the 21st century, syphilis might sound like a dramatic tale found only in the history books. It’s been well documented that many famous people including George Washington, Napoleon, and Al Capone had syphilis, which is a sexually transmitted disease.

The origins of syphilis have been up for debate for years. Some studies support that syphilis began in the New World and was brought over and spread to Europe by Christopher Columbus and his men (gee, thanks). Other theories blame the French (who doesn’t?). For many years syphilis was nicknamed the “French disease.” The French, however, blamed the Italians. What we do know, for sure, is that a lot of people starting in the 15th century got syphilis, and since it went untreated, many of them died.

Even through the early 20th century, syphilis was regarded as a moral and sinful thing to have or discuss publicly (big surprise). In fact, it was rarely ever mentioned by name, but was referred to as a “social disease,” which connected it to prostitution (known then as a “social evil”). Of course as contemporary thinkers, we know that STDs are not only found in prostitutes or those who visit them. Anyone who is sexually active is at risk for contracting an STD of some kind.

Syphilis is not just a historical disease. Currently, the number of syphilis cases is on the rise. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are 55,400 new cases each year in the United States. The biggest increase has been in 15 to 24 year olds. What does this mean for you, the sexually active of the 21st century? It means you need to get tested on a regular basis.

The test is simple and requires only a blood sample. The good news is that syphilis is very curable in the early stages with antibiotics from your doctor, but, if it goes untreated, it can cause serious problems including death. You want to avoid that.

Syphilis is spread through direct contact with syphilis sores. These can be on the genitals, anus, or lips. These sores are small and may not always be visible since they can also be inside the rectum, vagina, or mouth. Direct contact with these sores would include unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Syphilis can also be spread to unborn children, so it is important that pregnant women get tested regularly during their pregnancy.   

Once infected, symptoms typically appear within twenty-one days, but it can take up to ninety days. This is considered the first stage of syphilis. During this stage, sores develop around the area where syphilis entered the body. These sores are small and often painless, which means they can be easy to ignore. Many people do not recognize these as the results of an STD and therefore do not get treated. The sores will heal on their own and go away within three to six weeks. This does not mean you are cured or that the syphilis is gone.

At this point, the disease moves into the second stage. During this stage, many people develop rashes and more sores. These can appear in the mouth, around the anus or genitals, but also on other parts of the body. Some develop rashes on the palms of their hands and feet and on their backs. While these rashes aren’t pretty, they don’t itch and will go away without treatment. This may, again, cause people to not realize they are suffering from an STD. This stage can also include fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, weight loss, headaches, hair loss, and fatigue (also not pretty). These symptoms will go away without treatment. But, as stated before, this does not mean the syphilis is gone.

The last stage is the longest and most dangerous. It is often referred to as the “hidden stage,” because it can include very little symptoms and can span a long period of time. During this period, many people experience no signs of syphilis. Unless they get tested, they would have no idea that the disease is still working inside their bodies. Fifteen percent of people who do not get treated for syphilis move on to the last stage where the disease can become fatal. This happens between ten to thirty years after the initial infection. That’s right, thirty years. At this point, the disease begins to seriously damage vital organs, the brain, and can cause blindness, paralysis, dementia, and death. Basically, you don’t want to get to this stage. Once damage is done to vital organs or the brain that damage cannot be undone and syphilis is no longer easy to cure.

If you are sexually active, it is important to regularly get tested for all STDs. If you come back positive for syphilis, it is easily treated in the early stages with a shot of penicillin and an antibiotic in pill form. There are alternatives if you are allergic to penicillin, so consult your doctor. If you’ve been infected for less than a year, this will cure you. If it has been more than a year, you might require multiple doses. Testing positive for syphilis and getting treated does not mean that you can’t contract syphilis again, so regular testing is still required.

No matter where syphilis started or how many famous people have had it, you don’t want to let it remain untreated for long periods of time. It’s a simple test and a simple cure.