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Syphilis and Men Who Have Sex With Men

Syphilis Diagnosis

A blood test is the best way to determine whether someone has syphilis. Shortly after infection occurs, the body produces antibodies against syphilis that can be detected by an accurate, safe, and inexpensive blood test. A low level of antibodies will remain in the blood for months or years, even after the disease has been successfully treated.

Syphilis and HIV

The genital sores (ulcers) caused by syphilis make it easier to transmit and acquire HIV infection sexually. 

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) that cause sores, such as syphilis, disrupt barriers that provide protection against infections. The genital ulcers caused by syphilis can bleed easily, and when they come into contact with oral and rectal mucous membranes during sex, they increase the infectiousness of, and susceptibility to, HIV. Having other STDs is also an important predictor for becoming HIV-infected, because STDs are a marker for behaviors associated with HIV transmission.

Syphilis Treatment

Syphilis is easy to cure in its early stages. A single dose of penicillin, an antibiotic, will cure a person who has had syphilis for less than a year. Additional doses are needed to treat someone who has had syphilis for longer than a year. For people who are allergic to penicillin, other antibiotics are available to treat syphilis. Treatment will kill the syphilis bacterium and prevent further damage, but it will not repair damage already done. There are no home remedies or over-the-counter drugs that will cure syphilis.

Because effective treatment is available, it is important that persons be screened for syphilis on an on-going basis if their sexual behaviors put them at risk for STDs.

Persons who receive syphilis treatment must abstain from sexual contact with new partners until the syphilis sores are completely healed. Persons with syphilis must notify their sex partners so that they also can be tested and receive treatment.

Syphilis Recurrence

Having syphilis once does not protect a person from getting it again. Following successful treatment, people can still be susceptible to re-infection. Only lab tests can confirm whether someone has syphilis. Because syphilis sores can be hidden in the vagina, rectum, or mouth, it may not be obvious that a sex partner has syphilis. Talking with your health care provider will help you determine if you need to get re-tested for syphilis after you have received treatment.

Syphilis Prevention

The surest way to avoid transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis, is to abstain from sexual contact or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is not infected.

Avoiding alcohol and drug use may also help prevent transmission of syphilis, because these activities may lead to risky sexual behavior. It is important that sex partners talk to each other about their HIV status and history of other STDs so that preventive action can be taken.

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