Myths and Reality on Syphilis

Recently, a series arrived to streaming services based on the successful saga from Caleb Carr, which was first published in the early 90’s. The story is based on actual events and it was critically acclaimed, it’s also been subject to scrutiny, since it deals with very delicate issues such as sexual abuse, violence, sex work in minors, migration and especially, syphilis. 

As mentioned in the series, syphilis is in fact one of the oldest sexually transmitted infections in the world. It’s believed that it was Christopher Columbus who brought it into the New World from Europe in 1493. However, it’s the STI with the worst of the stigmas, since, back then, it was just as lethal as the bubonic plague and with equally painful and repulsive symptoms. 

Syphilis was also considered a “foreign” disease, since it was soldiers and sailors who visited brothels in different countries and ports the ones who spread it all over the world. It also received several names in history such as: “French disease”, “Cupid’s disease”, “sexual smallpox”, among others. Reason for which it has been subject to mocking and misinterpretation throughout film, literature and art. So, in this article, we present general and truthful information on this STI.  

If you need more information or need to get tested, consult our clinic and Wellness Center directory to know where services are offered and get personal attention. 

What is syphilis 

Syphilis is an STI caused by a type of bacteria known as Treponema pallidum. More than 88,000 cases were reported in the United States in 2016, according to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate of women with syphilis has gone down, but the rate among men, specifically, men who have sex with men, has increased. 

How is it transmitted

Syphilis is only transmitted through direct contact with sores or syphilitic chancres. This normally occurs during anal, vaginal or oral sex. It can also be transmitted from an infected mother to her fetus. 

It’s important to break a myth here: it cannot be transmitted through sharing a bathroom, even though it’s highly contagious, you can use the same toilet as a person with syphilis and you will not get it. Neither will you get it if you use their clothes or share utensils. This is because the bacteria cannot survive outside the body in these types of surfaces for very long. 

What it looks like

Syphilis is divided into 4 stages with different signs and symptoms:

  1. Primary stage: a sore or sores generally appear in the original site of the infection. These sores show up around the genitals, anus, rectum or in or around the mouth. They’re usually (though not always) firm, round and painless. They normally appear within 10 to 90 days after sexual contact and they last for up to 2 to 6 weeks. 
  2. Secondary stage: symptoms include skin rash, swelling of the lymph nodes and fever. Signs and symptoms may be mild and it’s possible that they’re not noticeable or that they may be confused with another condition, this is why syphilis was also known in the past as “the great imitator”.
  3. Latent stage: during this stage, there are no signs nor symptoms. It’s very dangerous because people believe that they’re cured or that it went away on its own, but the bacteria actually continues living inside the body
  4. Third stage: this stage is associated with serious medical issues, such as blindness, deafness, loss of memory, destruction of soft tissue and bones; neurological disorders such as strokes or meningitis; heart disease and neurosyphilis, which is an infection of the brain or the spinal cord.

An important myth to break is that syphilis doesn’t deform you, nor does it turn you into a monster as it’s portrayed in some movies and novels. It’s believed that this happened because in the past (XVII, XVIII and XIX centuries) people lived in poor hygiene conditions, without sewage, drinking water or basic services. Which would cause a sore or any wound to infect to a point where it would become very painful and repulsive. Something which is not so common nowadays. 

How it’s diagnosed

Most of the time, a blood sample is used. Although some doctors may use the discharge from the sores, in order to determine if it’s an ulcer caused by the syphilis bacteria. 

Who’s at a higher risk

Anybody who is sexually active may get syphilis through unprotected, vaginal, anal or oral sex. It’s important to get tested and always wear a condom when having sex, especially if you have multiple partners (and one of them has already tested positive).

Treatment and cure

The good news is that syphilis is treatable and curable. If you’re in the first stages, the doctor may prescribe penicillin or some other antibiotic. As well as treatment for pain and discomfort. In the later stages of the infection, it’s still treatable and you must go to the doctor immediately.  

Prevention

Having had syphilis once, doesn’t make you immune to getting it again. You may still get infected again, even after having been successfully treated. 

The best way to prevent syphilis is to practice safe sex. Wear a condom during any type of sexual contact. Also, the following may be useful:

  • Use a dental protector (a square piece of latex) or condoms during oral sex.
  • Avoid sharing sex toys.
  • Get an STI detection test and speak with your partners about the results. 
  • Syphilis can also be transmitted through needles. Avoid sharing them if you use injectable drugs. 

If you have any questions or need counseling regarding symptoms from syphilis or other STs, contact the AHF team, we will provide counseling for free. 

***Information obtained from: 

https://www.healthline.com/health/std/syphilis#picture