It’s time for me to mention syphilis again. It’s always around and unfortunately it’s very easy to catch.
First the low down on what you need to know. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by a spiral bacterium called a spirochaete. It’s been known by various names throughout history. The English called it the French disease. The French called it the Italian disease. Its correct name is Treponema pallidum, but I like to call it the great pretender. That’s because the symptoms are often quite non-specific and mimic other illnesses.
The classic symptom of syphilis is the chancre (pronounced shanka), an ulcer which usually appears on the genitals, and despite often being quite large and spectacular looking, is actually painless.
Not everyone gets the classic chancre though. I have seen people whose symptoms included body rash (especially on the palms of the hands), sore glands, headaches, an ulcer on the lip or inside the mouth, and even an ulcer somewhere else on the body.
You can catch syphilis from oral sex, and it can take a few weeks for your symptoms to appear. Sometimes the symptoms are so mild you might not notice them at all.
The sneaky thing about syphilis is that all of these symptoms actually go away without any treatment, but the infection actually just spreads internally, usually to your nervous system, where it becomes neurosyphilis, and can cause all manner of nasty complications including deafness and dementia.
If women catch syphilis whilst pregnant, the unborn baby also becomes infected and develops brain damage and malformations.
If you think that all sounds terrible, it is, but the good news is that we have a treatment that works – a single injection of long acting penicillin does the job nicely. Which is a far cry from centuries past when the only (unsuccessful) treatment was the administration of arsenic and mercury (which we now know to be as toxic as hell!) – hence “ a night with Venus; a lifetime with Mercury”.
Syphiis is diagnosed by a blood test and swabs of any ulcers, and is included in routine sexually transmitted infection testing which I recommend all sexually active gay men have every 3 months.