Syphilis Cases Climbing Among Gay Men: CDC
Rates have more than doubled since 2000, health officials report
With syphilis, however, many of these men don't know their partners, Bolan said. "We have about three weeks to find the partners and get them treated before they transmit it to someone else," she explained.
In addition, many young doctors don't recognize syphilis so they might not treat it, Bolan pointed out. "When they see a little sore on the genitals, they think herpes and do not realize that this is a case of syphilis that needs to be treated that day," she said.
Bolan believes that, given this epidemic, any man with a genital sore should be given antibiotics, even if it turns out not to be syphilis.
"Gay and bisexual men need to be aware that syphilis is common in their communities," Bolan said. "We are encouraging these men that if they engage in high-risk behaviors -- lots of anonymous partners, using drugs that lead to high-risk behaviors -- they should be checked for syphilis every three months."
In general, gay and bisexual men should be screened for syphilis every year, Bolan added.
To protect themselves, she said, men should use condoms, reduce their number of partners, or in some cases, abstain from sex.
Syphilis usually appears first as a painless genital sore, which disappears without a scar, or it can appear in the back of the throat and be missed entirely, according to Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, an infectious disease expert at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
After two or three months, some people get secondary syphilis, which can appear in many ways, but commonly begins as a rash on the soles of the feet and palms of the hands, and could include fever, swollen lymph nodes and a sore throat, Daskalakis said.
"That also goes away, and if not tested for syphilis, can go on to the long-term complications," he added.
Daskalakis noted that syphilis can be transmitted through oral sex as well as through vaginal or anal sex, so a condom may not be protective in all cases. A lot of gay and bisexual men, particularly those with HIV, aren't using condoms consistently and are at risk of transmitting and contracting syphilis, he said.