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Straight, No Chaser: Syphilis – The Great Mimicker

By Jeffrey Sterling, MD November 17, 2018

Today, you will learn two phrases that you may not have previously heard: The Great Mimicker and MSM. Regarding another word you definitely should know, I’ll touch on it and will save for a separate post: Tuskegee.
Historically, syphilis really is the most important sexually transmitted disease (For what it’s worth, it’s thought that Columbus’ crew spread the disease from the Americas to Europe.). The great mimicker nickname as applied to syphilis exists because syphilis has many general symptoms that resemble and are often confused with other diseases.  MSM points to the fact that treatment in the early stages is so complete that syphilis had been rapidly in decline – until it’s reemergence in a specific population. It is estimated that well over 60% of reported early stage cases of syphilis occurs in men who have sex with men (MSM).
In the first part of this review, I want to specifically address the symptoms, which are impressively and dramatically different depending on the stage.
syphilis1
Stage I – Primary Syphilis: Primary syphilis usually presents with the presence of a single, painless sore (a chancre), located wherever it was contracted. As pictured above, the head (glans) of the penis is a typical site. The sore disappears in 3-6 weeks (with or without treatment), and if treatment wasn’t received, the disease progresses. Herein lies the problems. Because it’s painless, you ignore it, perhaps thinking it was a friction sore, or you never gave it much of a thought. Because it went away on its own, you forget about it, thinking that it got better. So sad, so wrong…

syphilis2Syphilis-hands

Stage II – Secondary Syphilis: When syphilis returns days to weeks (more typically) after the primary infection, it does so quite dramatically. Rashes can appear everywhere, including across your back (as noted above) and chest to on your palms and soles, in your mouth, groin, vagina, anus, or armpits. The rash could be warts (condyloma lata) or flat. You should be scared, but you might not be because… the rash and the other symptoms again will disappear on its own. Despite what you may think intuitively, you really don’t want that to happen.
Latent Syphilis: Dormant syphilis can stay that way for decades after secondary syphilis has occurred. What you don’t know can hurt you. Syphilis can be transmitted during the earlier portion of latent phases, including to an unborn child.
Syphilis3
Tertiary Syphilis: Late stage syphilis is a disturbing thing to see (and obviously experience). The disease can result in death, causing damage to the brain, heart, liver, bones, joints, eyes, the nervous system and blood vessels. Before it kills you, it can result in blindness, paralysis, dementia and loss of motor control. If you don’t know how the research discovering all of this was conducted, for now I’ll just say it was one of the most shameful acts of medical history. I’ll blog on it later. The individuals in the above picture were alive when these pictures were taken, by the way.
A special note: The bacteria causing syphilis is rather aggressive, so much so that it can be transmitted by oral, anal or genital sexual contact. By oral, I also mean kissing. Pay attention to those oral sores. Furthermore, syphilis gets transmitted from mother to unborn child. This is a devastating occurrence – if untreated, a child may be born prematurely, with low birth weight or even stillborn. If untreated, once born, a child may suffer deafness, seizures and cataracts before death.
All of the pictures in this posts are typical representations of the various stages of syphilis, and I’ve seen them all. These are not meant to provide any shock value other than demonstrating what occurs with progression of the disease. Later, I will discuss treatment, risks and other considerations. I don’t think you’ll want to miss the rest of the story. That really is shocking – and horrible.
Feel free to offer comments or ask questions.
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0 thoughts on “Straight, No Chaser: Syphilis – The Great Mimicker

  1. Wow. Thanks Dr. Sterling. A lot of this information was new to me. I will be sharing this with friends and especially the young adults in my life. I’m appreciative of all of the efforts you make to present us with FREE medical information.

    1. Hi, Darla. I appreciate your comments and readership. As you know, nothing in life is free! Somebody’s paying (oh wait…that would be me!). This is actually part of a much larger public health effort that you’ll be hearing a lot about very soon. Thanks for following Straight, No Chaser!

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