Syphilis cases have reached the highest rate of new infections since the 1950s, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From 2018 to 2022, cases skyrocketed by almost 80%, with a total of more than 207,000 cases.
“We’ve known for a long time that this infection is common, but we haven’t had such a severe impact of syphilis in decades,” Dr. Laura Bachmann, acting director of the sexually transmitted disease prevention division at the CDC, said in a statement released with the report. . “This has become a unique public health challenge.”
Rates of the most contagious stages of syphilis – called primary and secondary – are increasing in all age groups and in all regions across the country, but the CDC notes that Black and Latino communities are disproportionately impacted due to long-standing social disparities “that often times have an impact on health. gap.”
Another troubling finding? Among the reported cases, more than 3,700 were congenital syphilis, which is transmitted to the baby during pregnancy. That’s an increase of 937% over a decade.
Congenital syphilis can be fatal for newborns and if left untreated can cause health problems later in life, says Dr. Kenosha Gleaton, a certified OB-GYN and medical advisor at Natalist, a women’s health company focused on pregnancy and conception.
“It is important to treat syphilis immediately, especially if you are pregnant, because this disease can cause a number of problems during pregnancy, delivery, and the postpartum period,” she told Talk News.
Syphilis can also cause an increased risk of miscarriage, premature birth, and stillbirth, Gleaton said.
As to why syphilis is on the rise in general, the CDC cites a number of reasons: poor use of condoms; increased drug abuse, which is often associated with risky sexual behavior; and people who face “substantial barriers” to sexually transmitted infection prevention and health services, such as screening. The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns have increasingly burdened public health programs.
Skip Van Orden/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via Associated Press
This 1966 microscope photo shows a tissue sample with the presence of many corkscrew-shaped, dark-colored Treponema pallidum spirochetes, the bacteria that cause syphilis.
And unfortunately with syphilis, the symptoms are not always easy to spot; STIs are often referred to as “great imitators” because of their ability to imitate other diseases. The elusive nature of the symptoms is why it’s a good idea to go and get tested if you’re worried you might be infected. In its early stages, syphilis is easily cured with the right antibiotics.
There are four stages of syphilis, some of which tend to overlap, but the disease is most contagious in the primary and secondary stages.
Signs of Primary Syphilis
When you get syphilis – usually through sex with someone who has a sore – the bacteria can live in your body for years without causing any symptoms, but that’s not normal, Gleaton says.
You usually see one or more small sores (which doctors call “chancres”) within three weeks of exposure to syphilis bacteria, Gleaton adds.
Chancre is highly contagious and tends to appear around the penis, vagina, rectum, and, less commonly, in the mouth. Sores are often difficult to recognize because they may be hidden in the vagina or under the foreskin. It can even be confused with acne or ingrown hairs.
“The sore is often painless and goes away on its own, but the syphilis bacteria will live in your body and grow over time if left untreated,” Gleaton told Talk News.
“The way your body reacts to the syphilis bacteria can vary greatly, so I always recommend that my patients stay up to date on their STI testing, especially if they are pregnant,” she says.Hearing about the signs of syphilis may be scary if you suspect you have it, but the good news is that syphilis is usually easily treated with antibiotics.
Signs of Secondary Syphilis
If syphilis is left untreated, some (but not all) people will experience the secondary stage, which includes a rash, says Dr. Philip A. Chan, a professor at Brown University and medical director of the Rhode Island Department of Health.
“The rash can occur anywhere on the body, but usually occurs on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet,” he said. “People may also experience fever, chills, enlarged lymph nodes, malaise, and other symptoms.”
If the rash and mild flu-like symptoms go away, you are still in danger, so you should still get tested.
“No matter how progressive the symptoms are, they will go away on their own without treatment, but the syphilis bacteria will continue to live in your body and can cause health problems later,” Gleaton said.
If left untreated, late-stage syphilis can cause blood vessel and heart problems, tumors, blindness, paralysis, and even death.
How to Treat Syphilis in the Early Stages
Hearing about the early signs of syphilis – chancres, rashes and flu-like symptoms – may be scary, but the good news is that syphilis is easily treated with antibiotics, Gleaton says.
If you have concerns, talk to your primary care doctor or another health care provider who specializes in sexual health.
“Syphilis testing generally includes a blood test,” Chan said. “Syphilis is still highly susceptible to penicillin, and treatment usually includes between one and three injections of a long-acting penicillin formulation.”
While you’re there, you should also be tested for other STIs, including HIV. Bottom line: There’s no harm in addressing any issues you’re having with your sexual health, and there are treatments that can help.
“As an OB-GYN, I have seen an increase in STI cases in my private practice in Charleston, South Carolina, from millennials to women over 45,” Gleaton said. “I have seen the fear and shame patients feel when they receive a positive STI diagnosis, but it is critical that we educate and destigmatize this scenario.”