The old ‘french disease’ doesn’t get much of a look in these days but it’s time to take a look at what is still an easily spread and potentially fatal STI. As alarmist as that sounds, leaving syphilis untreated can do some serious health damage to the eyes, heart and brain. When we think of syphilis we think of the plays of Ibsen or famous historical figures like Van Gogh and Oscar Wilde, but, contraction of this disease is not reserved for the bumbling genius of another era. It’s alive and kicking today and ready to pounce, as much at the local nightclub as it was at one of Shakespeare’s Roundhouse productions. Although not the major threat it was to the public health of yesteryear thanks to the discovery of penicillin, it’s still important to make sure the rate of infection doesn’t escalate. More information on what to look out for is found at the FPA website.
This common disease is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum and the rate of infection has been rising slowly but surely throughout the 00’s. There are three different stages of infection, each accompanied by their own unique symptom pattern. With the primary stage of infection, sores will develop in and around the genital area, usually occurring around three weeks after infection. The sores look like an insect bite and are often painless. They’ll heal all by themselves too but if insect bites seem like an unusual reason for such sores, it is worth getting tested. More details about the symptons are at this men's health website.
The secondary stage will see a rash on the palms of the hands and maybe other parts of the body and can last for a couple of months. It can also include wart-like growths around the groin area, fever, and white patches inside the mouth. This stage will also pass but it doesn’t mean that you are syphilis free. The tertiary stage can cause problems with the heart, nerves and brain which can lead to degenerative brain disorders like dementia, blindness and even death. It’s obviously vital to get tested and treated for this disease in its early stages. Even when syphilis is not active, it is present in its latent phase, meaning that it can be passed on via sexual contact unknowingly. Some of these symptoms, especially in the primary phase, seem easy to dismiss, but without treatment, things can escalate very quickly.
In order to test for this STI, a blood sample will be taken and if sores are present, fluid from the sores will suffice for testing. Where a positive result is gleaned, antibiotics will eradicate the disease but again it’s vital to get it sorted early on because whatever damage the disease has done cannot be reversed. Channel 4 has more information on the treatments for Syphilis.
The important thing to remember is that everyone is at risk once they are engaging in sexual activity of the unprotected kind whether it be vaginal, oral or anal sex. Furthermore, having a chat about sexual health with a new or existing partner will help to minimise the spread. Symptoms can be hidden inside the vagina or beneath the foreskin of the penis so it’s not always obvious and only a blood test will reveal its presence in the system. It’s like many other STIs in that symptoms are not always present so the only way to avoid infection is to use protection and have the all important conversation about sexual health with a partner, have you been tested recently? What tests did you have? If you have been engaging in regular sexual activity with many different partners and the activity has been unprotected, a full screen is highly recommended. Where men who have sex with men are concerned, having syphilis will substantially increase the risk of contracting HIV too. This is the case because the sores that present with infection will bleed and when they come into contact with bodily fluids through sexual activity, it makes the spread of infection easier.
Lastly, just because this STI has been treated, it doesn’t mean that it won’t come back to haunt you. Regular testing is recommended where regular sexual activity with multiple partners is concerned and being aware of the symptoms is half the battle. Common symptoms like a foul smell or itchiness aren’t a concern here. The symptoms are quite specific so, spread the word, syphilis is alive and kicking and also very preventable. You do not even have to attend a GUM clinic to get tested these days. There are plenty of online sexual health clinics in the UK and some even do blood tests by post using specially designed home sampling kits, like this website . Doctors are doing their best to make it easier for people to get tested, so now it is just down to people using these convenient services to ensure they are infection free.