Worrying resurgence of syphilis that can cause brain damage, here are the symptoms to watch for

Cases in England have reached their highest peak in 75 years.

Worrying resurgence of syphilis in UK, Michigan - see symptoms
© National Cancer Institute / UNSPLASH
Worrying resurgence of syphilis in UK, Michigan - see symptoms

When we think of mediaeval times, we often picture diseases and the olden-times remedies people used to combat them. However, with the arrival of modern medicine and vaccines, many of these ailments have since been eradicated - or close to it. Yet, numbers of a certain disease that existed all those years ago is making a worrying comeback in the UK with cases at the highest they have been in 75 years.

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The disease in question is syphilis, which can cause serious health issues. Numbers have hit a peak in England, and a localised outbreak of ocular (eye) syphilis has sent shock waves through Michigan. Here’s everything you need to know about the disease and the symptoms to look out for.

What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease that can cause hair loss, flu-like symptoms, seizures and even heart failure or brain damage. The tricky thing about this disease is that the symptoms change over time and are therefore hard to identify. According to experts the NHS, these are the symptoms to look out for:

  • 'small sores (ulcers) on your penis, vagina, or around your bottom (anus) – these are usually painless and you may only have one of them
  • sores in other areas, including in your mouth or on your lips, hands or bottom
  • white or grey warty growths most commonly on your penis, vagina or around your anus
  • a rash on the palms of your hands and soles of your feet that can sometimes spread all over your body – this is not usually itchy
  • white patches in your mouth
  • flu-like symptoms, such as a high temperature, headaches and tiredness
  • swollen glands
  • patchy hair loss on the head, beard and eyebrows'

As for ocular syphilis, ‘distinct symptoms include pain, redness, floating spots, sensitivity to light and blurred or loss of vision’.

Ocular syphilis breakout

In Michigan there has been a reported spread of ocular syphilis in 5 women who all slept with the same man. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report:

A cluster of five cases of ocular syphilis in women with a common male sex partner was identified in Michigan, suggesting that an unidentified Treponema pallidum strain might have been a risk factor for developing systemic manifestations of syphilis.

As the disease is usually spread through skin-to-skin contact, this report has raised concerns that a new and unidentified strain could be circulating.

Thankfully, this is a treatable STI and can be treated with antibiotics. The NHS states that, if you have syphilis, it is very important that you complete your treatment and get checked again 6 and 12 weeks afterwards to get retested.

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Sources used:

NHS: Syphilis

CDC: A Cluster of Ocular Syphilis Cases with a Common Sex Partner — Southwest Michigan, 2022

LeicestershireLive: Concern over resurgence of 'medieval STI' that causes brain damage and hair loss and can be spread through eyes

Peegasm: This common sex trend can be dangerous and can cause serious health problems Peegasm: This common sex trend can be dangerous and can cause serious health problems