The infection rate of syphilis is increasing. A 2016 Department of Health Services report states that the rate of infection has increased by 20 percent in Iowa, 30 percent in Minnesota and 58 percent in Wisconsin. Across the country, syphilis infections also are slowly increasing overall by 19 percent, as measured by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What is syphilis?
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease spread by direct contact with skin sores. Skin sores can be present anywhere in these regions: genital, rectal, oral and facial. The news is:
- Best: It is simple and cheap to prevent infection.
- Good: Physicians can treat and cure the infection with antibiotics.
- Bad: It is difficult for someone to know whether they are infected or not, and untreated infections have dire health complications later on.
Why such a large increase in Wisconsin rates of infection?
Several factors can increase a person’s risk of infection. The most prominent factors agreed upon amongst physicians are:
- Infected people not knowing they are infected.
- Infected people unknowingly spreading the infection to others.
- Newly infected people spreading the infection to others or re-infecting a previously treated person.
How can you protect against syphilis infection?
Abstinence is the ultimate protection against syphilis, because you are able to avoid any chance of exposure to skin sores. However, if you choose to be sexually active, you can reduce your chance of infection by:
- Having an open and direct conversation with your sexual partner(s). It is important for both partners to be treated to prevent reinfection from each other.
- Limiting sexual partners. The more sexual partners you have, the higher the risk of infection.
- Having a long-term mutually single-partner-only relationship with someone who has tested negatively for syphilis.
- Using latex condoms. This helps provide a barrier between your partner’s skin sores and your skin, lowering the risk of infection.
- Being tested. The CDC recommends testing for all women at their first prenatal visit, as syphilis can spread to an unborn child. Earlier treatment is associated with better baby outcomes.
What is the test for syphilis?
Two ways are available:
- A blood test, which often takes only 15 minutes for the results.
- A test of the fluid from a concerning and suspicious sore.
There are antibiotics available to cure infection, right?
Yes. However, it is important to get treated as early as possible. Untreated syphilis infection can cause damage to many body systems, and this damage commonly is not reversible.
What are the signs and symptoms of a syphilis Infection?
Signs and symptoms include sores on or around the penis, vagina, anus, rectum, lips, within the mouth or on the tongue. These sores are often painless, round, and firm. Because these sores are painless, they often go overlooked.
What can happen if I do not receive treatment?
Failure to get treatment for syphilis can include:
- Vision changes or impairment
- Loss of balance
- Hearing loss or new deafness
- Increased risk of HIV/AIDS infection
- Infected unborn children can experience profound lifelong health complications
If you feel that you have been exposed to syphilis or you only wish to have reassurance, see your primary care provider. Responsible sexual practices and personal health awareness will help reduce the rising rate of infection.
Trevor Rich, M.D., is a Family Medicine resident in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.