Syphilis Cases Climbing Among Gay Men: CDC
Rates have more than doubled since 2000, health officials report
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.
"Some people are avoiding anal sex because of the HIV risk and are having oral sex and not using condoms -- very few people use condoms for oral sex. That's an efficient mechanism for syphilis transmission," Daskalakis said.
He noted that syphilis increases the risk for getting and transmitting HIV and, if untreated, can lead to stroke, heart disease and mental problems, including dementia.
Treatment is simple, he added: Penicillin.