After years of decline, more sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis are being reported in adults and even newborn babies, who risk birth defects or even death if it’s not caught early.
Sanford Health’s Vickie Reiff, a certified nurse midwife, and Sarah Kooiker, a registered nurse, said that painless spot on a hand, tongue or genitals might be more serious than you think because it could be a sign of an STD.
Reiff and Kooiker work at the Sanford Health Midtown Family Planning Clinic in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which operates in cooperation with the South Dakota Department of Health to provide free or discounted services based on family size and income to both male and female patients:
- Exams and screenings
- Sexually transmitted infection testing
- Treatment and education
- Birth control (including to minors)
- Pregnancy testing
- Free community education
Most common STDs
Chlamydia and gonorrhea are the most common sexually transmitted diseases in the U.S. Eighty percent of the time, women don’t have symptoms of these bacterial infections and 50 percent of men don’t have symptoms. Chlamydia and gonorrhea can lead to infertility in women, another reason why younger women need to be concerned and careful.
Herpes, human papillomavirus (HPV) and HIV are also relatively common nationally and in the region.
Syphilis has gone from rare to common — increasing 35 percent in women alone last year nationally.
This STD first shows up as a sore (or sores) called a chancre (CHANK-er) that looks like someone touched the burning end of a cigarette to the skin. The disease is highly contagious at this stage, so brushing across the open wound can spread the syphilis to any part of the body that’s touched — not just the genitals.
Because it doesn’t hurt, people often see the sore and think they’re OK when it heals. But the disease remains in the body, and only a prescription medicine kills it.
If the chancre is up inside of the vagina and the woman doesn’t know it’s there, her partner won’t know it’s there. Same thing with the mouth and anus, so it can also spread through oral or anal sex without the other person knowing.
Condoms are good, but they are not a “get out of STD” card. And if the woman is on birth control, the couple thinks they’re safe against pregnancy but don’t factor in the possibility of contracting an STD like syphilis if one of them is infected. A lot of young people think, “If I can’t get pregnant, it must be safe.” Not so much. It’s a great way to get chlamydia, gonorrhea or syphilis.
In short, there’s not a spot on the human body where a chancre couldn’t grow.
Stages and treatment
In the first stage of a syphilis exposure, the only sign is the sore, which heals on its own and doesn’t hurt.
Left untreated, the disease progresses into the second stage, which includes a sore throat, low-grade fever and body aches — kind of like an unexplained virus. The telltale sign with the second stage is a rash on the person’s palm of the hand, sole of the foot or all over the trunk.
Syphilis progresses into the latent stage when there aren’t any symptoms, but it can still be passed to another person.
Finally, the tertiary stage can cause more serious health effects, including dementia, blindness, heart problems and damage to soft tissue like the stomach and lungs.
The only treatment for syphilis is penicillin. If the person is allergic to the drug, they’re typically admitted to the hospital and desensitized until they are able to receive it.
Danger to babies
Besides the obvious and serious damage syphilis can do it adults, it can also cause birth defects or even death in unborn babies:
- Rash on their palms or the soles of their feet
- Lesions in the mouth
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Failure to thrive
- Deformity in the tibia bone of their leg
- Intellectual challenges that get worse if not treated early
- Deformed mouth and nose
- Cataracts in the eyes
Because of the serious damage the STD can do, women are being screened multiple times for syphilis:
- As soon as they find out they’re pregnant. If they’re positive, they’re given penicillin, which also protects the baby.
- When they’re in labor. If the mom is positive, then the baby is tested and treated.
Possible reasons for the spike
The increase in syphilis cases has become a national concern. The numbers continue to climb like crazy.
The sharp increase in several STDs mirrors the 1960s and 1970s when “free sex” was popular. The decades since then saw a drop in most diseases, until the past few years when some of those same STDs started showing up again in large numbers.
In young people, a reduction in sex education in schools might be partly to blame, since it’s not mandated and often does not continue after middle school. By the time high schoolers get sexually active, they’ve forgotten some of what they learned.
Higher numbers in older people may be attributed to them being newly divorced or widowed. And if a woman can no longer have children, she’s no longer worried about pregnancy but may not consider the chance of an STD.
Another likely culprit is the prevalence of smartphone dating apps. You want to have sex, and they say yes. Anonymous sex partners are a huge issue. That’s true across ages. Apps have made it easier for people to be unfaithful: “I’m on a business trip to Minneapolis nobody knows. Here’s this app. I can find somebody.”
How to protect yourself
Some effective ways of protecting yourself from syphilis:
- Wait to have intimate relations until you can trust the person is telling you the truth. This can’t happen with someone you just met online.
- Get tested before you enter a new relationship, make sure your partner is tested and ask to see the results.
- Condoms are important, but they don’t guaranteed to protect you because syphilis sores aren’t limited to the genital area.
Some people don’t get tested because of the cost, or they’re worried about confidentiality, that it’s going to hurt or that they’ll be judged. None of those is a valid reason if someone is positive for the STD. At Midtown, we are nonjudgmental and culturally sensitive. Let’s talk about how you can be safer.
Other facts about Midtown:
- Fees are based on income
- Records are paper, not electronic, so results are confidential
- Parental permission is not required and parents aren’t notified