Sex Ed: Syphilis — Making a comeback


Syphilis has also been called “bad blood” or the “pox” and is caused by bacteria called treponema pallidum.

Like most STDs, it can be spread from one partner to another through vaginal, oral or rectal sex. It can also be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus and cause some major problems in the developing baby. Overall, 90 per cent of syphilis is transmitted sexually and the remainder is spread through blood.

Syphilis has three main stages and it can take anywhere from 10 days to three months until symptoms start. First you get a painless open sore around the genitals (or sometimes around the mouth.)

After two to six weeks the ulcer heals up on its own. One to two months later the second stage can lead to flu-like symptoms and a spotty rash to the palms and soles or even the whole body. From the first painless ulcer through the second stage, it is very infectious.

Without treatment, the symptoms usually go away and the infection becomes dormant. That is the fancy medical term for lying low and waiting to cause problems later on.

In the third phase, or tertiary syphilis, it makes a come-back slowly. It can damage the heart, joints, liver, brain, and eyes. In fact, there’s not much of the body that the virus can’t affect.

The way to find out if you have syphilis is a blood test. Anyone with a painless genital ulcer sore should be tested. Folks that have had unprotected sex and have any unusual rashes should also be checked for syphilis. All pregnant women are tested as well.

Good news: syphilis can be cured. Syphilis is treated with injections of penicillin or sometimes with pills by mouth. Once treated, the blood test still stays positive but other tests can show that the bug has been killed.

Syphilis has been found in men at twice the rate it infects women. The incidence peaks in people between ages of 15 and the mid-30s. Since about 1997, when there was an outbreak in sex trade workers in Vancouver, syphilis has been on the rise in Canada.

It’s affecting and infecting the North too. The Yukon had their number of cases go from none, to 11 in 2000, and it doubled again the next year. It may not sound like many infections but with a couple of cases of syphilis in a community, like HIV, it can spread like wildfire.

So, time to hammer home that same old message one more time! If you want to stay healthy and protect yourself from STDs there are two choices. Don’t have sex.

Or if you do, be sure you know who you are getting involved with, limit the number of partners you are with, and wear those condoms every time.

Confidential questions or comments? Send an email to or drop a note by the news office. Want to read past Sex Ed columns? Go to and click on columns.

I’m going skiing on the icefields between Clyde and Pond Inlet for the next two weeks — then back to write about hepatitis, trich, critters and more.

Madeleine Cole is a physician at the Baffin Regional Hospital.

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