I started this series on sexually transmitted infections in teens with a post on how to approach the topic of sexual health with your teen. It can be awkward, but it is important that teens have correct information from a source they can trust. As parents, you ARE the most important trusted source of information in your teen’s life! April is actually STD Awareness month, so I thought it would be fitting to end the series this month.
We’ve covered many different STD’s (though not all of them), so now let’s take a moment to talk about syphilis.Syphilis has been around a long time. Historical figures who are thought to have died of syphilis include Napoleon Bonaparte, Al Capone, and Christopher Columbus. With over 55,000 new cases of syphilis in the US each year, it’s not as common as the other STD’s we’ve talked about, but it is still affecting many! People at highest risk include men who have sex with men, but anyone who is sexually active can be exposed to syphilis.
Syphilis is spread by sexual contact and is actually a spirochete (a spiral shaped bacterium). There are different stages of syphilis and it is fairly easy to treat if caught early. The first sign of infection is a painless, hard, red ulcer on the genitals or anus. This may go away unnoticed (it’s painless), so the infection may then cause secondary syphilis. Secondary syphilis can look like an all over body rash or may be accompanied by fever and swollen lymph nodes in the groin. It’s unique because the rash will be on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. If this is left untreated, syphilis doesn’t go away, it becomes latent and can cause problems later including organ system damage, blindness, and death.
Neuro-syphilis is a complication that can happen at any stage and includes symptoms of headache or altered behavior. People with neuro-syphilis are treated for a longer duration of time than primary or secondary syphilis.
Syphilis can be diagnosed using a special technique called darkfield microscopy, but it’s usually diagnosed using a blood test. The blood tests are repeated after treatment to make sure the infection is improving. Treatment is with penicillin.
It is especially important for pregnant women to be screened for syphilis as this infection can kill the unborn infant.
So how can we prevent syphilis?
- Don’t have sex. This is the only way to guarantee protection against syphilis and all of the other STDs we’ve discussed in this series. Remaining abstinent can be harder than it seems. Communicate with your teen about your expectations of behavior. Talk about appropriate relationships and ask if they or their friends are waiting to have sex. Even if a teen chooses to have sex, delaying their sexual debut can decrease their risk of STD and unplanned pregnancy because they may be more mature and be able to take measures to have safer sex (i.e. birth control and condoms). Remaining in a monogamous relationship is also safer than having multiple partners.
- Get tested. Anyone who is having sex (anal, oral, vaginal) should have routine screening for sexually transmitted infections. Even if a teen has only had sex one time, they should talk to their health care provider about screening.
- Use condoms. While condoms are not 100% effective, they are very good at protecting against many STDs. Condoms should be used with every sexual encounter, including oral sex.
- Avoid alcohol and substance use. When people are intoxicated, they are more likely to have risky sexual encounters.
- If your teen has an STD, they should complete all of the treatment recommended by their healthcare provider. Taking partial treatment or not returning for follow up can lead to antibiotic resistance (bacteria that are resistant to being killed by our current antibiotics) or ongoing infection.
If you are concerned about your teen or feel uncomfortable talking about STDs or sexual behavior, check in with their medical provider.
Here are other posts you may be interested in reading: