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Speedy Sex Ed for College Students: Syphilis

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Pitt chapter.

Most college students have had at least some formal education regarding sex and sexually transmitted infections/diseases (STIs/STDs). But along our sexual careers, we often forget a lot of the information they taught us in 8th grade Sex Ed. As sexually active adults, we should all be familiar with the concept of STIs and their treatments, as well as symptoms and ways to protect ourselves against them. So this collegiette decided to get informed – and to share what I learned with all of you! This week’s subject? Syphilis.

Aliases: “The Great Imitator” (the symptoms of primary syphilis often imitate other STIs)

That’s totally a horse.

What is it? According to Mayo Clinic, “Syphilis is a bacterial infection usually spread by sexual contact.” But don’t worry about getting it from a toilet seat – it’s only through direct contact with the infected area.

Where can you get it? Sores can appear in the rectum and on the anus, genitalia, mouth, and lips.

How is it transmitted? Syphilis is spread through skin or through mucous membrane contact with a syphilis sore on the genitals, mouth, or rectum. Infected women can also spread it to their children during childbirth.

What are the symptoms? Syphilis has three symptomatic stages and one nonsymptomatic stage. Primary syphilis exhibits “a painless ulcer (usually called a chancre) . . . where the syphilis bacteria entered the body. On average, this will be 21 days after sexual contact with an infected individual . . . Without treatment, the ulcers take between 2 and 6 weeks to heal” (AVERT). Secondary syphilis symptoms include “skin rashes and/or sores in [the] mouth, vagina, or anus (also called mucous membrane lesions). This stage usually starts with a rash on one or more areas of [the] body . . . Other symptoms . . . can include fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and fatigue” (CDC). In the latent (hidden) stage, the symptoms lie dormant and the infection appears to have disappeared. However, in tertiary, or late stage, syphilis, “the disease may damage your brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints,” according to Mayo Clinic. Babies born with congenital syphilis often don’t exhibit symptoms initially; however, the later symptoms are serious, so it’s important for expecting mothers to get tested!

Who is at risk? Anyone who has sex. The only way to completely avoid STIs like syphilis is to abstain from sexual activity.

How is it diagnosed? According to Planned Parenthood, if you have an ulcer, medical professionals can test the fluid for syphilis. Other tests for syphilis typically involve taking blood samples.

How is it treated? “Syphilis is easy to treat in its early stages. Penicillin . . . is the best treatment for syphilis” (NIAID). It is SUPER important to catch syphilis early and treat it immediately. If you are at all concerned that you might have syphilis, get tested!

What if I don’t get treatment? If left untreated, late stage syphilis can lead to a multitude of health issues, from damage to the heart and nervous system to tumors and “dementia, blindness, or death” (WebMD).

How can I protect myself against Syphilis? The correct use of condoms hugely reduces the risk of contracting syphilis; however, the sores may be in a location that is not covered by a condom. In that case, contact with syphilis sores can still transmit the disease. The only surefire way to prevent STIs is to abstain from sexual activity all together. It is recommended that all pregnant women also get regularly tested for syphilis to prevent transmission to their child at birth.

I will continue to use the banana reference with regards to condoms. WRAP THE BANANA.

*Keep in mind that catching a sexually transmitted disease says nothing about your character. It is your body, you choose what you do with it, and no one can tell you otherwise. There’s no reason to feel ashamed if you do get syphilis or any other STI. It can happen to any sexually active adult at any point in their sexual journey.

For further information, consult the following authorities on STIs and sexual health:

Image credit: 1, 2, 3, 4

Thanks for reading our content! hcxo, HC at Pitt