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STD Awareness Month: What to Know About Syphilis

, by San Francisco AIDS Foundation

Since 2007, syphilis cases have nearly doubled among gay men in San Francisco, with the majority of diagnoses among HIV-positive men. Cases have also increased nationwide over the past several years among men who have sex with men, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

April is STD Awareness Month, so we sat down with Tim Ryan, RN, from Magnet, San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s gay men’s health center in the Castro, to talk more about syphilis and get his advice on how to stay healthy.

What are you seeing at Magnet?

Right now, we see between 5 and 15 syphilis-related cases each day. This is a lot more than in recent years, and there are some basic things guys should know to manage their sexual health.

How is syphilis spread?

Syphilis is caused by bacteria and is most readily spread through unprotected insertive anal sex (topping) and unprotected receptive anal sex (bottoming), or oral sex. There are several ways to protect your health, including wearing a condom during anal sex. Since the disease is spread by prolonged skin-to-skin contact, areas of the penis or rectum not covered by the condom are susceptible to infection.

How does the disease impact our health?

If someone is HIV positive, syphilis infection if untreated can worsen their immune status and affect organ function. Syphilis can also cause their viral load to increase, potentially making it more likely they will transmit HIV to others. Meanwhile, an HIV-negative person with syphilis is at much higher risk for contracting HIV.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include a painless sore in the mouth, throat, penis, or butt, or a generalized body rash. But not everyone exhibits symptoms. Sometimes the disease is only discovered through routine blood tests that should be part of regular and comprehensive sexually transmitted infection (STI) screenings. This underscores the critical importance of regular testing.

How often should we get screened for syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections?

Gay, bisexual, or other men who have sex with men who are sexually active should be screened for syphilis and other STIs every six months, and as frequently as every three months depending on sexual activity.

What if you’re contacted by a sex partner who tested positive for syphilis?

You should go to your physician or your nearest clinic, such as Magnet or San Francisco City Clinic, to get both screened and treated. [See below for an online STD test finder.] Providers should not wait for the result of a blood test before giving treatment because syphilis can incubate in the human body for up to three months without any symptoms and without a reactive blood test.

Any final words?

Get tested regularly!

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Resources

To learn more about syphilis, where to get tested for it, and what to do next, take advantage of these helpful resources.

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  1. Pingback: Sexual Health: Gay and Bi Men and Young People Face High STD Rates