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Antiquated Disease Makes a Troubling Comeback

Though nearly eliminated in recent years, syphilis is becoming a serious threat once again as outbreaks spring up across the country. U.S. cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) increased by over 17% between 2014 and 2015.

This resurgence can be attributed in part to a shift in dating culture, according to USA Today. Social media and apps like Tinder have changed the way people meet sexual partners and allow for a certain degree of anonymity. Intimate partners no longer get to know each other as well as they once did, and as a result, it may be more difficult to track down and warn past dates that they have been exposed to an STI.  

The disease has also spread rapidly in communities where heroin and methamphetamine use are prevalent, as users often trade sex for drugs. The New York Times recently reported a severe outbreak in Oklahoma City, where health investigators have worked tirelessly to identify and test possible patients.

Though recent outbreaks have been associated with gang activity, drug use, and other risky behaviors, anyone from any background who is sexually active can potentially contract syphilis. Caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum, the disease is spread through sexual contact with an infected person and can pass through broken skin on other parts of the body. A mother can also infect her baby during pregnancy or childbirth. A syphilis infection typically progresses through a number of stages, each with their own signs and symptoms, but these do not always follow a predictable course.

As the symptoms of syphilis can be difficult to recognize, it is possible to be infected for years without realizing it. Serious complications can arise if an infection remains untreated; including heart abnormalities, mental disorders, blindness, and even death. 

"Syphilis has long been called 'the great imitator' because it's symptoms can be vague and mimic other diseases," says Keith Falter, M.D., Women's Health CT medical director. "Because of that, symptoms frequently go unnoticed and the disease may not be caught until later stages. At that point the sequela may be harder to treat or even irreversible."

There is some good news, however. The disease can usually be cured with two injections of Bicillin L-A, a type of antibiotic. If you're concerned that you may be at risk for a sexually transmitted infection it's important to see your provider for routine testing, even if you have no symptoms. Learn more about STI prevention and testing here.


Hoffman, Jan, "Struggle to Hunt Elusive Killer As Syphilis Surges Across Nation." New York Times, August 25, 2017. Page A1, New York edition.

Toy, Sarah, "Syphilis rates are on the rise, and dating apps may be playing a role, experts say." usatoday.com, July 11, 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2017/07/11/syphilis-rates-rising-dating-apps/455104001/

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