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How common is Syphilis?

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Syphilis can be serious, but it is treatable

Syphilis is on the rise. This sexually transmitted infection (STI) was at one time virtually wiped out. But doctors have recently noticed a dramatic increase in the number of syphilis cases in Ottawa and across Canada.

Dr. Paul MacPherson, an infectious disease specialist at The Ottawa Hospital, said that Ottawa has seen significantly more cases as well.

How common is syphilis in Ottawa? In 2018, there were 151 cases of syphilis in Ottawa compared to 27 in 2013. This represents an increase of more than 400%.

Here is what you need to know about syphilis.

What is syphilis?

Syphilis is an infection that can be passed from person to person through direct contact with a sore or bodily fluids of someone with syphilis infection. This contact often happens during sex. Syphilis can be serious but is treatable with antibiotics to avoid long-term complications.  

Syphilis can be asymptomatic, which means you may not have any symptoms. When they do occur, symptoms of syphilis can include:

  • Painless genital sores, lesions or ulcers
  • Rash
  • Fever
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Swollen lymph nodes

“If you have a symptom of syphilis, such as a rash, you should get tested,” said Patrick O’Byrne, Nurse Practitioner and Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa and Research Chair in public health and HIV prevention from the Ontario HIV Treatment Network.  “But it’s also important to get tested regularly with or without symptoms. Regular testing of any sexually transmitted infection can help keep you and your sexual partners healthy, especially since some STIs present with few to no symptoms.”

Who is at risk of getting syphilis?

If you’re sexually active, you’re at risk of getting syphilis. To decrease your risk of syphilis, you should consider getting tested regularly and using a condom and dental dam.

“Syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections are more common than many people realize.”

What should I do if I think I have syphilis?

If you think you have syphilis, contact your family doctor or a health-care provider right away.  Ask them to test you for syphilis. If you’re comfortable, your health-care provider will ask about your sexual history and perform a blood test.

There is still a stigma around syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections. Remember that these kinds of infections are quite common.

“Syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections are more common than many people realize,” said Dr. MacPherson. “The reason many of us don’t realize this is because we don’t talk about it as often as we probably should. You shouldn’t be afraid to talk about your health and sexuality.”

What happens if I test positive for syphilis?

If you test positive for syphilis, know you’re not alone. Your health-care provider will give you antibiotics and resources. Once the syphilis is treated, your health-care provider will perform another blood test to confirm that the antibiotics worked and that you are syphilis-free. 

Remember, syphilis can be serious, but it is treatable. Talk to your health-care provider, your friends and your sexual partners about syphilis. You can help break the stigma that surrounds this and many other STIs.

If you aren’t sure about whether you have syphilis or any other STI, contact your health-care provider. If you have syphilis, tell your sexual partners and advise them to get tested as well. 

Read Dr. MacPherson and Patrick O’Byrne’s article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ)

Learn more about syphilis prevention, symptoms and treatment

Ottawa Public Health Sexual Health Clinic

GayZone Sexual Health Clinic in Ottawa

The LINK Sexual Health Clinics and Services


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