myths and facts about syphilis

Make Sure You Can Separate Fact from Myth When It Comes to Syphilis

Earlier this year, Medicare Health Plans, a consortium of Medicare supplement insurers, looked at Internet searches to find out which health conditions were most ogled by state. Among the top search items was syphilis.

That is surprising, but not too surprising. Sexually transmitted diseases may be searched more because they are so little discussed. You’re not likely to ask your friends for advice about syphilis. But as we know, online searches can bring up questionable if not outright incorrect information.

When it comes to something like syphilis, it is important to separate the facts from the myths to protect yourself and your loved ones. Here are some of the more common myths about syphilis.

MYTH #1: Syphilis is a thing of the past.

Since 2001, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the reported cases of syphilis increased from 2.1 cases per 100,000 population to 9.5 cases per 100,000 population in 2017. In fact, the number of syphilis case has increased almost every year since 2000–2001.

MYTH #2: Syphilis is a heterosexual disease.

Since 2000, the rise in the rate of reported syphilis has been primarily attributable to increased cases among men and, specifically, among gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men.

However, it should be also noted that within the last five years, cases among women and men who have sex with women have increased as well. The increase in syphilis among women is of particular concern because it has been associated with an increase in syphilis passed from pregnant women to their unborn babies.

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MYTH #3: Syphilis can’t be spread through oral sex.

You can get syphilis by direct contact with a syphilis sore during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Syphilis can also spread from an infected mother to her unborn baby.

MYTH #4: Syphilis is easily spotted.

Unfortunately, some people can have syphilis for a long time and not know it. (See the signs and symptoms in the sidebar.) It may not be obvious that your sex partner has syphilis because syphilis sores can be hidden in the vagina, anus, under the foreskin of the penis, or in the mouth.

The only way to know for sure is a test at your doctor’s office. Most of the time, a simple blood test is used to test for syphilis.

MYTH #5: Syphilis is incurable.

Syphilis can be cured with antibiotics from your health care provider.

MYTH #6: Syphilis is not dangerous.

Although it is sometimes without symptom, if left untreated, syphilis can spread to the brain and nervous system or to the eye, causing permanent nerve damage or blindness. For pregnant women, it is also potentially deadly to their unborn child.

MYTH #7: The cures today can undo any damage caused by syphilis.

Although syphilis is relatively easy to cure, the treatment might not undo any damage that the infection has already done.

MYTH #8: I’ve had syphilis, so I can’t get it again.

Having syphilis once does not protect you from getting it again. Even after you’ve been successfully treated, you can still be re-infected.

MYTH #9: I’m not promiscuous. I can’t get syphilis.

If you are sexually active, you can get syphilis. The only way to avoid syphilis, or any sexually transmitted infection (STI), is to not have vaginal, anal, or oral sex.

If you are sexually active, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers two tips to lower your risk of getting syphilis:

Be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested for syphilis and does not have syphilis

Use latex condoms the right way every time you have sex.

Screenings are an important tool if you are sexually active and at a high risk. The CDC offers a schedule of recommended STI screenings, outlining who should get them and when. Your primary care provider can also provide guidance on the screenings you should have.

If you have questions, or would like to be tested for STIs, talk to your family physician. You can find a UPMC Pinnacle family physician near you at

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Syphilis?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the symptoms of syphilis in adults vary by stage:

Primary Stage

You may notice a single sore or multiple sores at location where syphilis entered your body. The sores are usually (but not always) firm, round, and painless. Because they’re painless, you may not notice them. The sores usually lasts three to six weeks and will heal with or without treatment.

Secondary Stage

At this point, you may have skin rashes and/or mucous membrane lesions. Mucous membrane lesions are sores in your mouth, vagina, or anus. The rash can look like rough, red, or reddish-brown spots on the palms of your hands and/or the bottoms of your feet. It usually won’t itch and it is sometimes so faint that you won’t notice it. You may also feel a fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and fatigue (feeling very tired). The symptoms from this stage will away whether or not you receive treatment.

Latent Stage

The latent stage of syphilis is a period of time when there are no visible signs or symptoms of syphilis. If you do not receive treatment, you can continue to have syphilis in your body for years without any signs or symptoms.

Tertiary Stage

Most people with untreated syphilis do not develop tertiary syphilis. However, when it does happen it can affect many different organ systems. These include the heart and blood vessels, and the brain and nervous system. Tertiary syphilis is very serious and would occur 10 to 30 years after your infection began. In tertiary syphilis, the disease damages your internal organs and can result in death.

About UPMC Harrisburg

UPMC Harrisburg is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Harrisburg includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.

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