This Is Exactly What Syphilis Feels Like, According To A Doctor

by Zara Barrie
Northern Lights Films
Kylah Benes-Trapp

The first time I ever heard about syphilis, I was watching a Lifetime movie about a school that had an outbreak.

Some innocent teenage girl contracted it from a pimply faced football player (yes, he gave it to her), and she was ostracized by her entire suburban community even though the football player was the one sleeping with everyone in the school.

In typical sexist fashion, the girl — who had only had sex with one guy in her life — got the bad reputation instead of the boy.

I watched that captivating Lifetime movie probably 16 years ago, and I haven't thought about syphilis much since.

When I do think about syphilis, I think of it as some ancient disease. I think of turn-of-century fair maidens in long, flowing gowns with dramatic curls, fanning themselves on a plush, gold-gilded bed as they die a dramatic, tragic death.

And if that's not a testament to my wonderful "abstinence only" sex education, I don't know what the hell is. Syphilis is one of the many things I didn't learn about in my high school health class.

Syphilis is one of the many things I didn't learn about in my high school health class.

However, it turns out Millennials are becoming increasingly concerned about it, as there have been lots of stories circulating the web about it being "on the rise." This, of course, is terrifying AF, namely because we know nothing about it.

Also, according to our reader survey, Millennials can't stop Googling their STD symptoms. Lucky for us, Dr. H. Hunter Handsfield, MD, Professor Emeritus of Medicine at the University of Washington Center for AIDS and STD, agreed to provide us with information about syphilis (and give you something accurate to read when you inevitably Google it.)

The first thing Dr. Handsfield tells me is, while syphilis is most definitely something to be taken seriously, it's fairly uncommon among heterosexual men and women. Dr. Handsfield also informs me, however, that "70 percent to 80 percent" of syphilis cases are from men who have sex with men.

With the influx of progressive HIV preventive medications (like PrEP) becoming increasingly popular, condom use is down, which leads to higher levels of other STDs across the board in the gay community. (Please wrap it up, boys, even if you're on PrEP. It can prevent HIV, but not STDs.)

While the stats of heterosexual people infected with syphilis are lower than those of the gay community, Dr. Handsfield says heterosexual people are still at risk, especially as syphilis is spread from direct skin-to-skin contact, not through fluids.

Now that we know the stats, let's get down to how this STD feels.

It turns out there are different stages of syphilis. In the first stage, Dr. Handsfield tells me, syphilis will present itself as a "painless open sore in the genital area, oral area or rectal area."

Syphilis will present itself as a "painless open sore in the genital area, oral area or rectal area."

The open sores can appear in places that are hard to find, especially for women (like inside the vagina). It's usually followed by a swollen lymph node in the area that, despite presenting itself as swollen, is not tender.

This open sore will usually appear pretty quickly (as little as 10 days after exposure).

So boys, girls and everyone in between, if you see something unusual, it's very important to stay calm and see your doctor. Do not self-diagnose or ignore it. The sore will usually heal itself even if you aren't treated for it, but just because the sore is gone doesn't mean the disease has left the building, kittens.

If untreated, once the sore is clear, there is usually an asymptomatic "silent" period of syphilis followed by a painless, non-itchy that spreads all over the body rather than being localized. Rashes could easily resemble other diseases, so, again, it's important to stay on top of anything unusual that happens to your body by talking to a doctor.

Dr. Handsfield says the second stage of the disease is evidenced by swollen lymph glands or a sore throat, as well as a rash.

While the secondary stage can be dangerous as well, the last stage is when syphilis gets more complicated to treat. It can appear after one year of infection to up to 40 years. Strokes and blindness — the scary things you read about — can occur.

However, don't worry too much (though a healthy amount of worry is OK!).

The likelihood of getting syphilis is pretty low, and if you catch syphilis in its early stages, it's totally curable with antibiotics, Dr. Handsfield assures me. Good, old-fashioned penicillin will clear that stuff right up.

And even in later stages, while the treatment is a more invasive antibiotic (intravenous), it's still curable.

The other good news is syphilis will show up in blood tests, as long as you wait four to six weeks after exposure. If you get tested for it and it comes out negative, don't go freaking out that it's lingering in the body. Dr. Handsfield says it will show up, unlike some other diseases that take a little longer.

The moral of the story is this: You're very unlikely to be at risk for syphilis, but it's very important to pay attention to what's happening with your body.

If you see something and think you might be a risk, go visit your doctor. We all have hiccups now and then, and the more aware you are and the more you examine yourself, the quicker you can catch syphilis (or any STD) and treat it.

Dr. Handsfield recommends asking the experts at the online service of the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA). It gives you access to experts who specialize in sexual health and STDs. It's an awesome recourse, and as your lesbian big sister, I highly recommend it.

For more back-to-school sex education, check out Elite Daily's very own Sex Ed series.