Syphilis Cases on the Rise: Get Tested
While a lot of emphasis goes into getting tested for HIV, people may not be routinely tested for all STIs including syphilis. In 2012, BC experienced the highest number of syphilis cases in over 30 years. Although it is treatable with antibiotics, it can cause severe long term complications (or death) if not treated early. While an infected person often has no obvious symptoms, doctors are recommending that gay guys get tested and do so often as a part of their sexual health testing regimen. The majority of people getting syphilis in Vancouver are gay and bisexual men. Doing so will not only lead to faster treatment of the infection, but will also prevent its transmission to partners. You can get tested, for free, at the HIM Health Centres or the Bute Street Clinic, your family doctor, or to find a clinic near you check out Smart Sex Resource.
Most people who are diagnosed with syphilis have no symptoms. Those who do have symptoms report either a painless sore or rash. The painless sore can be around the genitals, as well as in the mouth, rectum and vagina. If the sore is present, syphilis can be spread through direct contact with it. The rash occurs on the chest, palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Both the rash and the sore will go away on their own even without treatment. Unfortunately the syphilis will stay without treatment and will continue to be spread through semen.
Syphilis is spread through oral sex as well as anal sex, or deep kissing/rubbing and grinding if coming in contact with a syphilis sore or if semen is present.
Symptoms of syphilis occur in stages.
- This stage usually starts within days or weeks after you’ve been infected. At this point, you may notice a painless open sore on the body part that has been in contact with the infection; probably on the penis, testicles, anus or mouth.
- The infection is passed to other guys through direct contact with the sore. The sore will heal after a few weeks, but even though it goes away, you still have syphilis.
- Some guys do not notice any sores, making it difficult to know if you picked up the infection.
- About four to ten weeks after infection, you might develop a rash on your chest, on the palms of your hands or on the soles of your feet. General aches and pains or fever may also occur. The infection is passed to other guys through direct genital contact with the rash or mucous membranes (inside of mouth and anus).
- Often referred to as the hidden stage, the latent stage of syphilis occurs about a year after infection. While no symptoms may be present, you still have syphilis and you can still easily pass it on to other guys.
- Left untreated, the bacteria can cause serious health concerns including blindness, mental illness, problems with the heart and nervous system and even death.
How do I know I have syphilis
Syphilis symptoms come in stages which can vary in severity from person to person. As a result, syphilis can be misdiagnosed. Be honest with a health care professional about your sexual history or concerns. The best way to know if you have syphilis is to get tested.
How do I protect myself
- Regular use of condoms will reduce the risk of picking up or passing on both syphilis and HIV. Contact with a sore outside of the area covered by a condom can still cause syphilis infection.
- Syphilis is often passed along by guys who don’t have symptoms and who don’t know they are infected.
- If you think you my have been exposed to syphilis, get tested. If you have numerous partners, get tested every three to six months.
- Limiting the number of different guys you have sex with will also reduce your risk.
- Don’t have sex with a guy if he has symptoms or if he is being treated for syphilis until his treatment is complete.
Syphilis and HIV
- Having any STI or having sex with someone who has an STI will increase your risk of picking up HIV.
- If you already have HIV, having syphilis may increase your viral load, increasing the chances that you’ll pass HIV on to others.
- HIV-positive guys might pick it up or pass it on during condomless anal sex with other HIV-positive guys.