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The Naked Truth The Sexual Health Blog

‘The Great Imitator’

August 1st, 2011 by The Sexual Health Team


 Why a syphilis infection is hard to detect

by Eric Christoff, MD

The symptoms may seem harmless enough: headaches, muscle aches or fatigue. Maybe a sore throat, a fever or a skin rash. Or, most commonly, small and painless sores that eventually go away. In and of themselves, these symptoms could be anything…like the common flu. But they could also indicate a syphilis infection in its primary or secondary stage.

That’s why syphilis is often called “The Great Imitator”…there are either no obvious symptoms, or minor symptoms that are easily overlooked and eventually disappear without treatment. But an untreated syphilis infection can lead to serious health complications many years down the road, including damage to the internal organs (e.g., the heart, brain, liver, eyes, nerves, blood vessels, bones and joints). Signs and symptoms of late-stage syphilis can be debilitating, including difficulty coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, numbness, blindness and dementia.

Not to mention, a person who is unaware of a syphilis infection can spread the bacteria to others.

Happily, syphilis can be easily treated and cured in its early stages, usually with a single penicillin injection. Don’t wait until you have painful lumps in the groin area, which can indicate that the infection has progressed to an advanced stage. The sooner you get tested and diagnosed, the more quickly and easily the infection can be treated.

And what about reducing your risk of getting syphilis in the first place? My advice is to get tested every time you have a new sexual partner. Knowledge is power…and knowing your status and your partner’s status is key to staying healthy.

I also tell my patients that the more sexual partners you have, the more at risk you are. And the majority of new syphilis cases occur among men who have sex with men (MSM). In both scenarios, get tested at least every six months…and if you’re HIV-positive, I suggest getting tested every three months.

Photo: ©iStockphoto.com/imagetwo

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