Syphilis cases are rising, but do you know the symptoms?

SyphilisCC: Pexels at Pixabay

Syphilis is a disease that was almost confined to the history books. As an STD, it’s thought to be responsible for the madness of King George (and possibly Henry VIII too). It blossomed during WWI and WWII, especially with the rise of prostitution and men traveling between various shores.

In the year 2000, syphilis cases reached their lowest level. There were around 2.1 cases per 100,000 of the population, which was the smallest number since 1940. In 2017, we’re seeing five times as many cases of syphilis. Now there are 9.5 cases per 100,000. Startlingly, that figure has risen by 72.7% since 2013.

What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a bacterial STD that you’ll only catch from intercourse with an infected person. It has four stages: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary.

During the primary stages of syphilis, you’ll experience the initial symptoms (more on those later). The secondary phases of syphilis see the disease’s symptoms spread beyond the genital area. It’s still possible to cure it during the secondary phase and it’s important to do so. When the disease becomes latent, it’s as though the symptoms have disappeared entirely. In the tertiary phase, the patient may experience neurological symptoms. It’s thought that the madness of various kings (as mentioned earlier) could be due to tertiary syphilis, which was notoriously rampant during the Renaissance and Georgian periods.

Syphilis and its symptoms

During the primary phase of syphilis, patients experience the following symptoms:

  • Painless sores around their mouth, anus, penis, vulva, or vagina – depending on the site of infection.
  • The sores heal within three to six weeks.

So far, syphilis seems fairly innocuous. Unfortunately, the disappearance of the sores above may convince the patient that their condition is no longer an issue. They’re unlikely to attribute their symptoms to what is a relatively rare disease. Then, the secondary symptoms arrive:

  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • A red and brown rough rash on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet
  • Fever
  • Patchy hair loss
  • Sore throat
  • Headaches and body aches
  • Extreme tiredness

Aside from the rash and hair loss, all the above seems quite viral. Patients may convince themselves that they’re suffering from flu-like symptoms. If they see a physician at this stage, the clinician they visit is likely to figure out it’s syphilis and they’ll offer them relevant tests. If they don’t, and the symptoms disappear, they’ll enter the latent phase. Following this, there’s the tertiary phase:

  • Difficulty forming muscle movements
  • Signs of dementia
  • Mood swings
  • Numbness
  • Visual problems

It’s rare for syphilis to enter the tertiary phase in our modern era. When it does, though, nerve damage has already occurred.

Why is this disease on the rise?

At present, the CDC is trying to understand the rise of syphilis in the United States. One theory is that tests have become more common, which is then reflected in the reported rates. Another is that people aren’t using condoms properly and that they’re perhaps not aware that the disease spreads via oral routes too.

In the UK, some social commentators have suggested that the way relationships are formed in the modern era makes syphilis more likely. For example, the use of dating apps such as Tinder and Grindr makes casual relationships more likely, which pushes a rise in all STDs. On a darker note, drug-related intercourse lowers inhibitions, resulting in a reduction in condom use.

Cases of syphilis are still quite rare compared to other STDs. As they’re rising, it’s a good idea to recognize their symptoms anyway.

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.