There are four stages of syphilis: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary. (See each stage’s symptoms here.) Oral, anal, and vaginal sex are some of the ways the disease can spread. Some people who contract syphilis never have symptoms and could have the disease for years without knowing.
Penicillin can cure both syphilis and congenital syphilis. The antibiotic cannot reverse damage done to your organs via infection, especially if the disease has greatly progressed before treatment.
Teriya Richmond, MD, explained what an average test day looks like. Upon arriving at the testing site, you will get checked in and learn about the types of STDs you can be tested for. The CDC recommends you get tested for HIV, syphilis, hepatitis C, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. Syphilis tests are done through blood samples. Testing for other diseases include oral or anal swabs, and urine samples, said says Richmond, a board-certified family medicine doctor who specializes in women’s health.
Sergino Nicolas, MD, creates TikTok videos and Instagram reels to raise awareness about the outbreak. The Pittsburgh-based emergency medical doctor said there is often a “nonchalant” attitude toward STDs among some people in their 20s and 30s. Being unaware of the consequences of syphilis could drive that attitude. “With thoughts like ‘I can just get treated,’ I think there is danger in that, because when you have these infections, [irreversible] complications can occur,” he said.
Preconceived notions among this age group that oral sex is a safer alternative to vaginal or anal sex is also common, Nicolas said. “Any time you might have infected secretions, or be exposed to mucosa, including the vaginal mucosa, that can result in spreading the infection.”
Women of color have been particularly impacted by the outbreak. Syphilis has a wide range of signs and symptoms, and that could play a major role, Nicolas said. Lack of education on the dangers of unprotected sex, particularly if you have multiple sexual partners, could be another reason, as doing so increases your rates of yeast infections and STDs, he said.
Another potential factor: Sexually explicit music and entertainment can also cloud judgment on whether to engage in sexual activity, Nicolas said. Younger generations can especially fall prey to this. “There have been new artists over the past few months that have really been pushing for ‘female empowerment’ in a sense,” he said. “At the same time, they can also push a narrative more so pertaining to promiscuity, which could result in certain psychological effects” that could lead to unsafe sex practices.