Cast-iron skillets, knitting, and fedoras aren’t the only retro things making a comeback. It’s time to welcome back… syphilis!
Yep, syphilis was almost eradicated just two decades ago thanks to antibiotics, but now it’s back in business. In California alone, there were 34.3 cases of early syphilis per 100,000 Californians in 2017—a 20 percent increase from 2016—according to new data released by the California Department of Public Health.
In women of childbearing age (15 to 44 years), early syphilis cases increased nearly sevenfold—from less than 250 in 2012 to 1,460 in 2017—and about 15 to 20 percent of women with syphilis were pregnant, per the CDPH.
In the U.S. overall, syphilis rates among women more than doubled between 2012 and 2016, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC also estimates that there were 27,814 cases of reported syphilis in 2016, an 18 percent increase since 2015.
What exactly is syphilis?
Syphilis is a chronic infectious disease caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum, and spread via oral, vaginal, or anal sex, the CDC says. “Chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis are major public health problems worldwide, affecting millions of peoples’ quality of life, causing serious illness and sometimes death,” says Ian Askew, Director of Reproductive Health and Research at the World Health Organization.
In fact, cases of all three STDs are on the rise, according to the CDPH: More than 300,000 cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis were reported in 2017—a 45 percent increase from five years ago.
The syphilis symptoms you should know about
There are three stages of syphilis, and one of the biggest problems with infection is that the earlier symptoms are so easy to miss. Here’s what you need to watch out for:
In stage-one syphilis, a.k.a. primary syphilis, one or more small, painless bumps at the site of the infection. The bumps stick around for three to six weeks then disappear on their own but make no mistake, this doesn’t mean the syphilis is gone and you still need treatment, Diaz says.
The secondary stage is characterized by a rash, often appearing as reddish-brown spots on the palms of your hands and soles of your feet. The rash usually isn’t itchy and may be very faint, according to the CDC. You may also experience a fever, swollen lymph nodes, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and fatigue during this stage. Again these are all symptoms that are easy to dismiss as a cold or flu. (Hint: This is one reason why all sexually active women need to get regular screenings, even if you feel fine, Diaz says.)
This rash and other symptoms will eventually go away on their own—it’s a stage known as latent syphilis—but that isn’t exactly good news. Though there are no visible signs of syphilis in this stage, the infected person still has syphilis in their body, where it can stay for years. Eventually, that bacteria will spread and develop into the final stage of syphilis—the one where it can maim, disable, or even kill you.
Third-stage syphilis (a.k.a tertiary syphilis) is a nightmare and you do not want it. It happens after the bacteria that has been dormant in your body for years begins to spread. Once the bacteria have infected your whole body, usually 10 to 30 years after the original infection, they can cause a ton of health problems, Diaz says. These may include dementia, blindness, open sores, infertility, chronic pelvic pain, heart problems, migraines, paralysis, and even inflammation of the brain and death.
Why syphilis symptoms in women are especially terrible
Syphilis is known to cause pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancies, miscarriages, and stillbirths, Diaz says. If you do get pregnant with syphilis there’s a significant chance you’ll pass the disease to your child.
Children born with the infection have what’s known as congenital syphilis. In California, 278 babies were born with congenital syphilis in 2017 (30 of which were stillbirths), per the California Department of Public Health; across the U.S., 628 cases of congenital syphilis were reported in 2016, according to the most recent data from the CDC.
Syphilis treatment is effective—but time is of the essence
To cure syphilis, the new WHO guidelines recommend a single dose of benzathine penicillin. You can forget the pink drink or pills though—this one is an injection straight into your butt. This shot is the most effective treatment for syphilis and is more effective and cheaper than oral antibiotics, they add.
The sooner you get the treatment the better off you’ll be, Diaz says. Later-stage syphilis may require more aggressive treatment and the antibiotics can’t undo the damage already done to your body.
This disease is totally preventable
Two words: Safe. Sex. And if we can add a few more: Every. Time.
It’s important to talk honestly with past and potential sex partners about their possibility of exposure and make sure you’re having consistent check-ups and screenings. “The assumption is that ‘I don’t have to use protection because I can always take an antibiotic and I’ll be fine,'” Diaz says. “Don’t fall into this trap.”
What it’s like to have syphilis:
“My first boyfriend was also my first sex partner and I was his. After we broke up, I started dating a new guy. About three months into the relationship, I went in to get tested for a yeast infection and instead found out I had a yeast infection and syphilis.
“My boyfriend said he had always tested 100 percent clean for STDs. So clearly someone was lying to me. I’d always insisted on condoms (even though I’m on birth control) but my doctor said I could get it from giving head too. I honestly don’t know how I got it. Thank goodness I got that yeast infection though or I would never have known; I didn’t have one single symptom. I got treated for it and am fine now.” —Anonymous
“I discovered I had syphilis when I went to give blood. They test donated blood for lots of things before they can use it. I was shocked as hell when they told me I tested positive for syphilis. I have no idea how I got it.
“I’ve only been with three men and my current boyfriend also donated blood and his passed, so obviously I didn’t get it from him. The other two guys, we always used condoms, and I never did anal or oral or kinky stuff. I was sure the blood bank was wrong so I went to my gyno and, yep, I really had it.
“I was hysterical. Eventually my doctor calmed me down and pointed out that it really didn’t matter how I got it, only that now I knew I had it and could get treated. I got the shot, which felt like peanut butter being injected into my ass. And I guess I’m fine? It still upsets me that I don’t know how I got it.” —Anonymous
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