Under a microscope, it resembles spiral pasta, but on the surface of the skin, syphilis starts out as painless, red sores, known as chancres.
If caught early it can be cured, preventing the disease from continuing onto later stages which include symptoms like a rash on the hands or feet. Without treatment syphilis can reach the “latent stage,” which can result in damage to organs and muscles, blindness, dementia and death, according to syphaware.org.
Rates of syphilis rose more than 1900 percent between 2007 and 2016, according to the Oregon Health Authority, which is currently running a month-long awareness campaign for Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Infections.
Between 2007 – 2016, the hardest-hit demographics were both men and women aged 20 – 24, who had between 44.2 to 46.6 percent of cases, respectively.
Syphilis, like many other STDs, is spread by coming into contact with a chancre. Chancres usually appear wherever the transmission occurred (around or inside of the genitals or mouth). During the primary stage, symptoms may not be painful, giving the false impression that there is nothing wrong.
Gay and bisexual men, people with HIV, and people of color are at a higher risk of getting syphilis. In recent years, however, transmission to women has become more common.
The Center for Disease Control recommends taking the following steps as ways to help prevent transmission:
- Talk to your partners about your history before you engage in sexual activity with them.
- Try to reduce your number of partners.
- Use latex condoms correctly every time you have intercourse.
- Get tested by a healthcare professional regularly.
Syphilis must be diagnosed by a medical professional. Treatment includes injections of penicillin, according to syphaware.org. If the disease is far enough along, treatment may require multiple rounds of antibiotics.
It is also important to note that a syphilis test should be requested in addition to standard STD tests, as it is not included by default in all medical clinics. The same goes for HIV testing — it should be requested separately as well.
People with questions or seeking testing or treatment for STDs can stop by the health clinic here on campus, go to their primary care provider, make an appointment at Planned Parenthood, or go to Lane County Public Health Department’s STD Clinic in downtown Eugene. There are many options for people without insurance or who have lower incomes.
Though syphilis can be cured, it is possible to get it again. Remember to follow the prevention steps mentioned above.