April 23rd is the feast of St. George’s. A day to celebrate the man who was slayer of dragons, patron saint of England, and of course the patron saint of those who suffer from syphilis. That’s a nice fit as April is also STD awareness month.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that can cause a painless ulcer on the genitals followed by a diffuse rash. For women the ulcer may occur in the vagina and go completely unnoticed. The rash may be mild and may also go unnoticed (typically the palms and soles are often the most affected).

For approximately 1/3 people infected, syphilis progresses and can cause serious long-term health consequences (this is called tertiary syphilis). Tertiary syphilis can damage the brain, nerves, and blood vessels.  In addition, the ulcer of syphilis (called a chancre) makes it easier to catch and transmit both herpes and HIV. Syphilis can also cause birth defects for babies exposed during pregnancy.

How common is syphilis?

There are about 70,000 new cases every year in the United States. The biggest risk factors for syphilis are:

  • Men who have sex with men (64% of all cases). 42% of men with syphilis met their infected sex partner via the Internet. The 3 most frequently reported sites for meeting these sex partners with syphilis were Adam4Adam.com, Manhunt.com, and Craigslist.com
  • Anonymous sex
  • Methamphetamine use

Screening for syphilis requires a blood test and should be included anytime you are screened for STDs. Make sure to ask.

Syphilis is treated very effectively with antibiotics. However, if syphilis is left untreated any damage to the brain and nervous system is not reversible.

How can you protect yourself?

  • Avoid hook ups. If you end up disregarding this advice and have causal sex, ALWAYS USE A CONDOM.
  • If you are not in a monogamous relationship, get tested for STDs.
  • Ask about your partner’s sexual history and drug use. It might not feel sexy asking, but syphilis isn’t sexy either.  Just check out the ulcer below…
Syphilis ulcer (called a chancre) courtesy CDC/M. Rein, VD

Join the Conversation


  1. Did you know that George and the Dragon is actually a Christian reworking of the Greek legend of Perseus and the Hydra?

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