• By Dan Lea

Syphilis: A rising community presence

August 1, 2022

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — The infection rate of syphilis is increasing. The rate of infection has increased by 81% in Iowa, 28% in Minnesota and 34% in Wisconsin from 2016 to 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Across the country, syphilis infections increased over the same time by 52%.

Here are answers to questions on how to prevent and treat this infection:

What is syphilis?

"Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection spread by direct contact with skin sores," says Trevor Rich, M.D., a family medicine physician at Mayo Clinic Health System — Oakridge in Mondovi, Wisconsin. "The disease starts as a painless sore, typically on the genitals, rectum or mouth. After the initial infection, syphilis bacteria can remain in the body for decades before becoming active again."

It's simple and cheap to prevent syphilis infection. Health care professionals can treat and cure syphilis with antibiotics. It's difficult for people to know whether they are infected, and untreated infections have dire health complications later.

Why are rates of infection increasing so quickly?

Several factors can increase a person's risk of infection.

The most prominent factors are:

  • Infected people do not know they are infected.
  • Infected people unknowingly spread the infection to others.
  • Newly infected people spread the infection to others or reinfect a previously treated person.

How can people protect against syphilis infection?

The ultimate protection against syphilis is abstinence because being abstinent avoids exposure to infected skin sores.

However, if people choose to be sexually active, they can reduce their chances of infection by:

  • Having an open, direct conversation with their sexual partners.
    It's important for both partners to be treated to prevent reinfection from each other.
  • Limiting sexual partners.
    The more sexual partners people have, the higher the risk of infection.
  • Having only a long-term, mutually single partner who has tested negative for syphilis.
    This also is called a monogamous relationship.
  • Using latex condoms.
    This helps provide a barrier between a partner's skin sores and a person's skin, lowering the risk of infection.
  • Being tested.
    The CDC recommends testing for all women at their first prenatal visit, as syphilis can spread to an unborn child. Earlier treatment is associated with better baby outcomes.

What is the test for syphilis?

Two simple and easy ways are available:

  • A blood test, which often takes only 15 minutes for the results.
  • A test of the fluid from a concerning or suspicious sore.

Are antibiotics available to cure syphilis infection?

Yes. However, people should treat syphilis as early as possible. Untreated syphilis infection can cause irreversible damage to many body systems.

What are the signs and symptoms of a syphilis infection?

Signs and symptoms include sores on or around the penis, vagina, anus, rectum, lips, within the mouth or on the tongue. These sores are often painless, round and firm. Because these sores are painless, they often go overlooked.

What can happen if syphilis is not treated?

Failure to treat syphilis can cause:

  • Vision changes or impairment.
  • Loss of balance.
  • Hearing loss or new deafness.
  • Stroke.
  • Increased risk of HIV/AIDS infection.
  • Profound lifelong health complications in infected unborn children.
  • Headache.
  • Dementia.
  • Loss of pain and temperature sensations.
  • Sexual dysfunction in men.
  • Bladder incontinence.
  • Permanent damage to heart valves and arteries.

"If you feel that you have been exposed to syphilis, or you only wish to have reassurance with a quick test, see your primary care provider," Dr. Rich says. "Responsible sexual practices and personal health awareness will reduce the rising rate of infection in the community."

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About Mayo Clinic Health System

Mayo Clinic Health System has a physical presence in 44 communities and consists of 53 clinics, 16 hospitals and other facilities that serve the health care needs of people in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The community-based providers, paired with the resources and expertise of Mayo Clinic, enable patients in the region to receive the highest-quality physical and virtual health care close to home.

Media contact:

  • Dan Lea, Mayo Clinic Health System Public Affairs, 715-838-6405, lea.dan@mayo.edu