Syphilis: An Overview

Scanning Electron Micrograph of Syphilis Bacteria. CDC/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/GETTY IMAGES

Syphilis is one of the better-known sexually transmitted diseases. You might even say that it is infamous. One of the biggest scientific scandals of the 20th century stemmed from a study of this sexually transmitted disease, and it has affected the way research has been done ever since.

Syphilis is considered to be a genital ulcer disease. The chancres, or sores, that are the first symptoms of syphilis provide an easy route of entry into the body for other viruses.

In particular, it can significantly increase the risk of acquiring HIV. All genital ulcer diseases put a person at an increased risk of HIV/AIDS. Therefore, it is extremely important for you, and your sexual partners, to be tested and treated for syphilis if you have been exposed to the disease. Although throughout the 1990s the rates of syphilis had been declining, in recent years many cities have seen a surge in the number of cases. Some of this increase is thought to be due to transmission during oral sex among men who have sex with men.

How is Syphilis Transmitted?

Syphilis is spread by direct contact with a syphilis sore. This usually occurs during oral, vaginal, or anal sex.  In the early stages, it just appears as a painless rash. If left untreated, it can go on to cause disease in other organs of the body. This includes the central nervous system. Syphiilis infections of the brain and spinal cord are known as neurosyphilis.

Syphilis can also be transmitted from mother to infant during pregnancy. Congenital syphilis can be a very dangerous condition. It can lead to serious disability or even death. This is why it is generally recommended that pregnant women be tested for syphilis. Even though  the disease has become rare, every congenital case is a serious problem.

What is Neurosyphilis?

It is said that sex has driven people mad.

This is not true in general, of course. Most of the time sex just makes people feel good. Sometimes it helps them create the next generation. However, sex can be quite stressful. Additionally, in certain specific cases, the madness caused by sex is literal. Infections acquired through sex can actually cause damage to the brain. One example of this is what happens when a person suffers from an untreated case of syphilis.

Left untreated, genital syphilis cases can progress and become neurosyphilis. Neurosyphilis does not always cause symptoms. However, it can cause blindness, personality changes, dementia or even death. Some historians have attributed the madness of men such as Hitler, Neitzche, and Jack the Ripper to syphilis! There has been very little data to support such theories of the role of syphilis in history. It certainly can have significant effects on individual lives.

For More Information About Syphilis:


CDC Fact Sheet - STDs During Pregnancy. Accessed 2/25/16 from

CDC Syphilis Fact Sheet. Accessed 5/28/07 from

Kaplan RM. Syphilis, sex and psychiatry, 1789-1925: Part 2. Australas Psychiatry. 2010 Feb;18(1):22-7. doi: 10.3109/10398560903295717.

Retief FP, Wessels A. Did Adolf Hitler have syphilis? S Afr Med J. 2005 Oct;95(10):750, 752, 754, 756.

U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee Accessed 5/28/07 from

Continue Reading