STD can cause grave complications if not treated
Syphilis is a bacterial infection. It is considered a sexually transmitted disease. It usually presents as a painless ulcer or sore (called chancre, pronounced “shang-kur”) on areas of sexual contact including the genitals, rectum and mouth. Syphilis is spread by directly contacting an active sore. The open sores also make it easier to transmit other diseases, including HIV, the cause of AIDS.
The sore is usually painless, or difficult to see, and often goes unnoticed. It usually appears at the site of infection about three weeks after the contact. The sore usually resolves in four-to-six weeks.
Sometimes, about a month or so after the initial infection (primary syphilis), a generalized itchy rash may occur, including brown/copper-colored spots on the palms and soles. Some people also experience flu-like symptoms including enlarged lymph nodes. This rash and flu-like reaction may occur just once or recur several times over a one-year period. This is called secondary syphilis.
After the sore and rash heal, the syphilis bacteria can remain quiet in your body for years or even decades before becoming active again. This is called latent syphilis. Left untreated, syphilis can be devastating, causing damage to your heart, blood vessels, brain, nervous system and skin.
Approximately 25 percent of people infected with syphilis who don’t get treatment will develop severe complications producing damage to the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones and joints. This is known as “tertiary” or “late” syphilis. As depicted in a recent episode of the television show The Knick, a tell-tale sign of tertiary syphilis is the destruction of the cartilage in the nose. These problems may occur many years after the original, untreated infection.
Syphilis can also be transmitted to the fetus, and most health officials recommend/require all pregnant women undergo testing. Children born with syphilis can have many health problems including but not limited to dental problems, heart problems and deafness.
Although not as common as it once was, syphilis is still a significant medical problem. Remember:
• If you notice a sore or ulcer on the genitals, rectum or mouth and you are at risk, see a doctor.
• There are good blood tests that easily detect syphilis.
• When syphilis first occurs, it can be very easily treated — often with a short course of antibiotics or a shot.
• Don’t engage in unprotected sex, or use drugs or alcohol — which can cloud judgment and lead to unprotected sex.
• Untreated syphilis can cause death.
Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board-certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the U.S. by Black Enterprise magazine and one of the top 21 African American physicians in the U.S. by the Atlanta Post. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians, MABP.org.