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Syphilis: An Overview


Updated August 08, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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Sex has driven people mad.

Not in general, of course. Most of the time sex just makes people feel good or helps them create the next generation. However, in certain specific cases, infections acquired through sex can actually cause damage to the brain. One example of this is what happens when a person suffers from an untreated case of syphilis.

Syphilis is spread by direct contact with a syphilis sore, usually during oral, vaginal, or anal sex. It can also be transmitted from mother to infant during pregnancy. In the early stages, it just appears as a painless rash. If left untreated, it can go on to cause disease in other organs of the body, including the central nervous system (neurosyphilis). Neurosyphilis may not cause any symptoms, or it can cause blindness, personality changes, dementia or even death. Some historians have attributed the madness of men such as Hitler to syphilis, although there has been very little data to support such theories.

Syphilis is considered to be a genital ulcer disease. The chancres, or sores, that are the first symptoms of syphilis provide an easy route of entry into the body for other viruses, specifically HIV. Genital ulcer diseases put a person at an increased risk of HIV/AIDS, and it is extremely important for you, and your sexual partners, to be treated for syphilis if you have been exposed to the disease. Although throughout the 1990s the rates of syphilis had been declining, in recent years many cities have seen a surge in the number of cases.

Syphilis is one of the better-known sexually transmitted diseases. You might even say that it is infamous. One of the biggest scientific scandals of the 20th century stemmed from a study of this sexually transmitted disease, and it has affected the way research has been done ever since.

For More Information About Syphilis:


The CDC Syphilis Fact Sheet. Accessed 5/28/07

U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee Accessed 5/28/07

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