On the good/bad scale of sexually transmitted infections, I would put syphilis somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, it’s treated with penicillin. As in like, the very first antibiotic ever invented! So how bad could it be? Don’t they put penicillin in the water supply now? Well, actually they don’t yet, and as it turns out, syphilis has an ugly side. You see unfortunately, it can go to your brain, cause neurosyphilis and make you cray cray. Yeah, that’s right, cuckoo for coco puffs. So perhaps we should all take a minute and educate ourselves on the perils of this sexually transmitted infection.
Syphilis has a long and sordid history. Legend has it that Christopher Columbus and his crew picked up the disease on their trip to the Americas and brought it back to Europe where it spread rapidly throughout the continent. In the years after Columbus returned from his first trip to the America’s, Italian physicians treating French Soldiers who were occupying parts of Italy at the time time, noticed a nasty rash “more terrifying than leprosy,” which, unfortunately was found to be spread through sexual contact. It caused “genital sores, foul abscesses and ulcers over the rest of the body and severe pains.” The sores could become so severe that they would eat into the flesh and destroy the bones. Unfortunately, in the pre-antibiotic era, there wasn’t much to treat the disease, except Mercury ointments, and many died of mercury poisoning.
Now a days, the disease is a skosh less, well…gross. At least in my clinic I do not come across any syphilis induced flesh rotting. (Which is good because I do not like the rotting flesh.) It usually starts as a painless nodule on your genitals. It can then ulcerate and become firm with raised borders. Occasionally theses lesions can be painful, especially if they become secondarily infected with another bacteria. They can be anywhere on your penis (foreskin, head, shaft, base) scrotal area, anal area, or even in your mouth or on your fingers. These lesions generally appear somewhere around 3 weeks after exposure, but can be anywhere from 7-90 days. Even without treatment, the lesion usually goes away in 4-6 weeks.
Unfortunately, without treatment, syphilis becomes latent. Meaning you have no symptoms but you still can pass on the disease. In other cases it can come back as a diffuse rash, sometimes on the trunk and other times on the palms and soles or even hairline. Finally, if syphilis isn’t treated after many years, it gets very bad. It can cause destructive lesions on the skin and bones and even get into you brain. So, who wants mental illness?? Not this guy. I got enough problems. Luckily, syphilis is easily treated if caught early. Currently with 2 penicillin shots. (ouch!) But the longer you go untreated the more shots you need. (double ouch!)
Syphilis is definitely on the rise. Especially among men who have sex with men. In 2015, 60% of all syphilis cases were among gay or bisexual men. So…if you don’t like shots….and you don’t like rotting flesh or mental illness, get checked for syphilis. Its a simple blood test. You can ask for it at your next check up. And if you have any bumps on your genitals, don’t be that guy that tries to diagnose yourself by looking at pictures on the internet. Go get checked out for God’s sake! And stop shaving too. If I had 25 cents for every who thought his ingrowing hair was an STD, I’d have at least 3 dollars and could almost by a latte at Starbucks!