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Everything You Need To Know About Syphilis

This is one terrifying STD.

Cast-iron skillets, knitting, and fedoras aren’t the only retro things making a comeback. It’s time to welcome back… syphilis!

Yep, syphilis was almost eradicated just two decades ago thanks to antibiotics, but now it’s back in business. Between 2012 and 2016, syphilis rates among women more than doubled, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC also estimates that there were 27,814 cases of reported syphilis in 2016, an 18 percent increase since 2015.

Syphilis is a chronic infectious disease caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum, and spread via oral, vaginal, or anal sex, the CDC says. “Chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis are major public health problems worldwide, affecting millions of peoples’ quality of life, causing serious illness and sometimes death,” says Ian Askew, Director of Reproductive Health and Research at the World Health Organization.

One of the big problems with syphilis is that the earlier symptoms are so easy to miss. Generally the only sign of stage-one syphilis (yep, there are three stages) is one or more small, painless bumps at the site of the infection. The bumps stick around for three to six weeks then disappear on their own but make no mistake, this doesn’t mean the syphilis is gone and you still need treatment, Diaz says.

The second stage is characterized by a rash, often appearing as reddish-brown spots on the palms of your hands and soles of your feet. The rash usually isn’t itchy and may be very faint, according to the CDC. You may also experience a fever, swollen lymph nodes, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and fatigue during this stage. Again these are all symptoms that are easy to dismiss as a cold or flu. (Hint: This is one reason why all sexually active women need to get regular screenings, even if you feel fine, Diaz says.)

This rash and other symptoms will eventually go away on their own but that’s not good news as it means the disease has moved into the final stage—the stage where it can maim, disable, and even kill you.

Third-stage syphilis (a.k.a tertiary syphilis) is a nightmare and you do not want it. The bacteria can lay dormant in your body for years or even decades but eventually they will spread. Once the bacteria have infected your whole body, usually 10 to 30 years after the original infection, they can cause a ton of health problems, Diaz says. These may include dementia, blindness, open sores, infertility, chronic pelvic pain, heart problems, migraines, paralysis, and even inflammation of the brain and death.

Syphilis is known to cause pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancies, miscarriages, and stillbirths, Diaz says. If you do get pregnant with syphilis there’s a significant chance you’ll pass the disease to your child.

To cure syphilis, the new WHO guidelines recommend a single dose of benzathine penicillin. You can forget the pink drink or pills though—this one is an injection straight into your butt. This shot is the most effective treatment for syphilis and is more effective and cheaper than oral antibiotics, they add.

The sooner you get the treatment the better off you’ll be, Diaz says. Later-stage syphilis may require more aggressive treatment and the antibiotics can’t undo the damage already done to your body.

Two words: Safe. Sex. And if we can add a few more: Every. Time.

It’s important to talk honestly with past and potential sex partners about their possibility of exposure and make sure you’re having consistent check-ups and screenings. “The assumption is that ‘I don’t have to use protection because I can always take an antibiotic and I’ll be fine’,” Diaz says. “Don’t fall into this trap.”

“My first boyfriend was also my first sex partner and I was his. After we broke up, I started dating a new guy. About three months into the relationship, I went in to get tested for a yeast infection and instead found out I had a yeast infection and syphilis.

“My boyfriend said he had always tested 100 percent clean for STDs. So clearly someone was lying to me. I’d always insisted on condoms (even though I’m on birth control) but my doctor said I could get it from giving head too. I honestly don’t know how I got it. Thank goodness I got that yeast infection though or I would never have known; I didn’t have one single symptom. I got treated for it and am fine now.” —Anonymous

“I discovered I had syphilis when I went to give blood. They test donated blood for lots of things before they can use it. I was shocked as hell when they told me I tested positive for syphilis. I have no idea how I got it.

“I’ve only been with three men and my current boyfriend also donated blood and his passed, so obviously I didn’t get it from him. The other two guys, we always used condoms, and I never did anal or oral or kinky stuff. I was sure the blood bank was wrong so I went to my gyno and, yep, I really had it.

“I was hysterical. Eventually my doctor calmed me down and pointed out that it really didn’t matter how I got it, only that now I knew I had it and could get treated. I got the shot, which felt like peanut butter being injected into my ass. And I guess I’m fine? It still upsets me that I don’t know how I got it.” —Anonymous