8 syphilis myths and misconceptions: from toilet seats to arsenic

By Oli McAuslan, updated 2 weeks ago in Health / Sexual health

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One of the big three STIs – syphilis is a common Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) which affects gay and bi guys.

What’s also common are certain myths and misconceptions about syphilis, which can stigmatise the STI and discourage people from getting treated.

From how it’s transmitted to how to treat it, we’ve pulled together some myths surrounding syphilis so you know how best to manage a case of it.

1. MYTH: syphilis is a thing of the past

Although syphilis has been around for a while (500 years or so!), you can still get it today, and it is on the rise. The rates of syphilis infections have been increasing in Australia over the past five years, though certain populations are more affected than others. These include men who have sex with men, people living with HIV and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

2. MYTH: there are no prevention methods for syphilis

There are a number of ways you can prevent the spread of syphilis. Condoms and dams help protect against syphilis, but it is still possible for syphilis to spread even when you’re using barrier protection. Getting regularly tested for syphilis will also stop the spread of syphilis among the community and ensure early and effective treatment. Find your nearest sexual health testing service with our interactive map.

Although they have not been approved in Australia yet, doxy-PEP (a way of using antibiotics after sex to help prevent some STIs) has been shown to reduce the transmission of syphilis. There is also a syphilis vaccine in the works.

3. MYTH: you can get syphilis from a toilet

No, you can’t get syphilis from a toilet seat. Syphilis is not transmitted through sharing bathrooms, towels, clothing or cutlery with someone who has it.

Syphilis can spread through sex. This includes oral sex, anal sex, arse play, sharing sex toys, vaginal or front hole sex, fingering or fisting. Syphilis can also spread through contact with an infected area of skin or through sharing razors or needles.

4. MYTH: it is obvious when you get syphilis

Common syphilis symptoms, such as sores (also called chancres) and a rash on the palms and the soles of the feet, can make syphilis more obvious. However, some people don’t get syphilis symptoms, and if they do, rashes and sores can be painless and hidden, so their presence can easily go unnoticed. Symptoms can show up between 10 days and three months of infection, so it may be less obvious that it is syphilis. The best way to know if you have syphilis is to get regularly tested by your doctor or at a sexual health service.

5. MYTH: syphilis only affects the genitals

Some people may think that because syphilis is an STI, symptoms will only appear on your genital areas (cock, balls, arse, and front hole). However, some symptoms affect other parts of the body, such as your eyes, hands, feet, lips or mouth. It’s good to keep an eye out for syphilis symptoms, such as sores and rashes on all parts of your body (not just your genitals), and get tested if you notice syphilis symptoms.

6. MYTH: syphilis is incurable

Syphilis is treatable. It is usually treated with penicillin injections. Alternative treatment options are available for anyone who is allergic to penicillin.

Some people may think syphilis is incurable because it shows up in a test even after you have been successfully treated. This does not mean you have syphilis again. Let your doctor know that you’ve previously had and been treated for syphilis, and they will be able to tell you if you have a new infection. Remember, after treating syphilis, you can still get syphilis again in the future.

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7. MYTH: syphilis will go away by itself

Even if symptoms of syphilis disappear, without treatment you still have syphilis. You need to get treatment to prevent any severe long-term effects on your health and prevent spreading it to others.

8. MYTH: syphilis is treated with Salvarsan 606/arsenic

In the 1910s, an arsenic compound called Salvarsan 606 was discovered by Sahachiro Hata and Paul Ehrlich. It treated syphilis without harming healthy tissue, so it was called a ‘magic bullet’. Salvarsan is no longer used for treating syphilis, but it inspired the development of antibiotics that we use today.

It’s essential to get the right facts when talking about STIs like syphilis. This means we can take charge of our own sexual health (using prevention methods, getting tested regularly) and inform others who may believe some of these myths.

If you’re looking for more information on syphilis, check out our Knowledge Hub, and our article Everything you need to know about syphilis.