Syphilis: Straightening the Misconceptions

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. In India, there are about a million cases each year.

Syphilis is treatable and resolves within a few weeks under proper treatment. However, if left untreated, it can progress to a more harmful stage.


A Brief History: As Girolamo Frocastoro dictated parable in 1530, the character of Syphilus, a shepherd in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, is shown to be the first man to contract what was erstwhile known as the French Disease. According to the parable, Apollo sent Syphilus to earth as punishment for defiance.

Syphilis had different names in different countries depending upon the national sentiments of the nation in question at the time. As an illustration, the Dutch, who were in a national clamor against the Spaniards at the time, named it “The Spanish Disease.” It was however, established that it was spread due to sexual contact. Sailors, especially, transmitted it to the prostitutes in brothels who subsequently spread it.

In the 1980’s, studying syphilis became “in fashion” and studying the roots of the disease led to it being known that even Van Gogh, Nieschtze, Joyce and many more stalwarts suffered from syphilis.

Posters such as these were in public display in the ’40s

Q. How do you know whether you have Syphilis?

ANS: Syphilis manifests as painless sore initially, which is often confused for an ingrown hair or a zipper cut. Subsequently, in the second stage, it is accompanied by rashes. In later stages, it may lead to ocular damage (permanent blindness), as well as damage to the heart and brain.

During the initial stage, there may be a single sore or many sores. The sore is localised to the region where the bacterium entered the body. These sores are present for 72 hours to 90 days. The sores may go away with or without treatment. However, if treatment is not administered accordingly, the disorder may progress to the second stage.

In the second stage, skin rashes are common. The rash appears as reddish spots on the palms and the sole of your feet. The rash may not itch but it is accompanied by painless ulcers in the groin, vaginal discharge, fatigue, sore throat and swollen lymph nodes. These symptoms appear about 6-12 weeks after infection and disappear within a year.

Left untreated, this infection can manifest itself 10-30 years later as late syphilis which may even be fatal. In this untreated period, it causes damage to internal organs and causes paralysis, blindness and dementia.

Q.How do you know whether you are at risk for Syphilis?

ANS: Syphilis is spread by direct contact with a syphilis sore during unprotected sex of any form: anal, vaginal or oral.

If you are sexually active and have had unprotected sex, you are at risk for syphilis.

If you have used contaminated needles, you are at risk of contracting syphilis.

Syphilis is often spread to an unborn child by a pregnant mother.


Q.You may have Syphilis. What do you do now?

ANS: If you think you have syphilis, stay calm. There is nothing to worry about. It is completely treatable. Visit a physician near you. If you are in Manipal, visit Kasturba Hospital. Book an appointment with the Department of Venereology.

Secondly, you need to inform those you have had any form of sexual contact with, about your condition. This is necessary and you owe it to yourself, them, and as a whole, to society. This would prevent them from spreading the disease further and would help them get treated too.

Informing your partner is key to prevent the spread of STDs.

Q.How do you reduce your risk for Syphilis?

ANS: Generally, homosexual relationships, multiple sexual partnerships and HIV afflicted persons are at risk for syphilis.

If you are in a homosexual relationship, it is advised to get regular check-ups and to use protection.

Using condoms and sufficient protection is absolutely necessary. It is understandable that you may have multiple sexual partners and there is nothing wrong in that. But what is problematic is if you have unprotected sex with multiple partners.

There is nothing to be ashamed of about Syphilis. As we have already mentioned, it is completely treatable. If you suspect yourself of having syphilis, visit your nearest physician at the earliest.

Delve deeper into our series on STD Awareness.

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