The number of gay and bi men who are getting syphilis is increasing. Syphilis is easily transmitted between sex partners since symptoms are not always visible and symptoms go away even when not treated. If you’re having sex, get tested for syphilis every three months.
What is syphilis?
Syphilis is a blood infection caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum.
How do you get syphilis?
You can get syphilis by touching a sore caused by syphilis—called a lesion or chancre—on another person. People who have syphilis usually get lesions on their genitals or butt or inside their rectum. People can also get lesions on their lips or in their mouth, which means that it’s possible to get syphilis by kissing someone with syphilis if the person has mouth sores.
What are the symptoms of syphilis infection?
Many times, people with syphilis don’t know they have it because they don’t get any symptoms. When people do experience symptoms, they usually happen in the following three stages.
Three weeks after you’ve been infected, on the part of your body where you were infected (usually on your penis, balls, mouth, throat, rectum or in your butt), you’ll get a sore. It might be painful. It will scab over, then heal. Even if you don’t do anything about the sore, it will go away on its own but the infection will progress to the next stage.
Two to six months after you were infected, you might get a rash on the palms of your hands, the soles of your feet, or other parts of your body. You also might get a fever, have a sore throat, lose your hair in patches, have headaches, have swollen lymph glands, lose weight, be tired or have muscle and joint aches. This can go on for six months or more, and without treatment, the infection will progress to the next stage.
Without treatment, a syphilis infection will begin to damage your internal organs and other parts of your body–such as your brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints. This kind of damage might not be noticeable for years, and might be serious enough to cause death.
Even when a person with syphilis doesn’t show any symptoms, they are still able to transmit syphilis to others.
Syphilis is diagnosed with a blood test. If you’re having sex, get tested for syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia every three months.
Can syphilis be treated?
Syphilis can be treated and cured with antibiotics—penicillin if the infection is diagnosed early on. Other drugs are used if a person with syphilis is allergic to penicillin.
How can it be prevented?
Don’t touch another person’s syphilis sores or lesions. Condoms, dams or gloves that cover sores or rashes will help prevent infection.
If you’re on treatment for syphilis, wait to have sex with other people until your sores are completely healed.
Syphilis & HIV
Gay men with HIV are more likely to have syphilis than gay men who don’t have HIV. People with HIV who get syphilis:
- May be more likely to get an incorrect syphilis test result (e.g., a false positive or negative), although this is rare;
- Can experience worse syphilis symptoms (quicker progression and earlier damage to the brain);
- Can experience a faster progression from HIV to AIDS with decreased CD4 counts (a marker of immune health) and increased viral loads;
- May develop damage to the brain in spite of treatment, which means that people with HIV and syphilis need to be carefully monitored so problems can be treated right away.