Syphilis sounds about as 60s as free love, Jefferson Airplane, casual LSD use, and beatniks. In fact, ever since we started getting more afraid of STDs than pregnancy, thanks to the rise of more serious illnesses like HIV in the 80s, young people in particular have helped reduce the prominence of syphilis. Condoms, regular testing and treatment, and less sex with sketchy strangers represent!
If you think I’m making this up, know that right at this very moment I’m having coffee with one of my dearest friends who also happens to be a doctor specializing in infectious diseases. He has even mentioned I shouldn’t be using the term “STD” because “STI” (sexually transmitted infection) is actually the correct term, because you can be a carrier of an infection while remaining symptom-free.
But back to syphilis. Did you know that syphilis is about as American as apple pie? My doctor friend is telling me all this over macarons at Nadege. I’m not sure if the waitress’s cut-eye means she wants us to leave or might recommend our conversation to her manager as part of the macaron comeback campaign.
Apparently the most prominent theory about how syphilis became such a world phenomenon, as it were, is that Christopher Columbus and his boyz picked up the disease on their world travels to the Americas, aka Spring Breakers 0.5, and brought it back to Europe to share with the Old World. That’s right. I’m pretty sure “Eureka!” actually means something entirely different… like, “I’ve found a crater-ulcer on my penis! Help!” Syphilis might have a reputation as being the hippies’ STI, but it’s actually the explorers who gave it its first round of pop culture je ne sais quoi.
Puritans of the New World may have kept syphilis on the down-low, but thanks to the invention of birth control and the baby-boomers’ bra-burning “wild phase” before they became yuppies, the STI had its first big post-explorer comeback around the time of Woodstock and other outdoor sex fests.
By the mid 90s syphilis had dropped in prevalence to the point that only 4 to 5 cases would be seen each year in large cities like Toronto. However, in 2002 syphilis made its triumphant return to North American genitals. According to my doctor friend, it is now one of the fastest growing STIs in the country and it isn’t even on the radar of a lot of health care practitioners who don’t work in the field. So as part of her court-mandated public service, this girl is gonna give you the low-down on the “great pox.” Just kidding, Mom!
How do you know if you have syphilis? Well, again according to my doctor friend, it’s painless but often appears on the genitals like a small ulcer that goes away within a few weeks. If you’re thinking, Phew! I thought I had herpes but I guess it was just an ingrown hair, you might not be in the clear after all. The ulcer won’t come back, although you might have a rash afterwards. You can actually be visibly symptom-free for years despite still having the STI, but eventually you’ll get a lot of systemic problems: neurological, heart, and/or bone problems. It can affect any organ, and possibly lead to long-term paralysis and pain, birth defects if you’re pregnant, blindness, and even death. Holy eff!
So what exactly should you do? Fortunately, syphilis is easily treatable. Start by getting tested regularly, as you should since many STIs – not just syphilis – can go unnoticed by the infected person. Make sure you ask your doctor about syphilis testing because they don’t always do it at family doctor walk-ins, for instance. STI doctors will almost always test for it though, if you go to an STI-specific clinic. Condoms also help to prevent syphilis transmission, but just like herpes, they’re not 100 percent effective because skin-to-skin contact can still lead to syphilis infection. Sexy, right?
Sure, it sucks that our generation might never feel as free to f*ck each other as our parents’ generation once did, but the bright side is that knowing about STIs and their comebacks might help you decide against sleeping with that creepy person on Tinder who invites you over to spoon at 2 am… not that I know anything about that!