STD Awareness: Syphilis Treatment Through the Ages

The spiral-shaped bacteria that causes syphilis.

When syphilis first descended upon Europe, questions surrounded this mysterious scourge. Was it a punishment from God? Was it introduced by a hated Other? Was it caused by the stars’ alignment or the presence of “bad air”? We now know that syphilis is not caused by supernatural forces, foreigners, or a harmful atmosphere, but rather by a species of corkscrew-shaped bacteria called Treponema pallidum, which is spread by sexual contact — vaginal, anal, or oral sex — in which one person comes into contact with a syphilis sore.


Thanks to penicillin, we don’t have to go back to the “good old days” of puke chalices, antivenereal underpants, and rat poison.


Before good treatments were developed in the 20th century, syphilis was the most feared STD out there. Its initial symptoms can include a painless sore filled with a highly infectious liquid. As the infection spreads, lesions and rashes might appear on the soles of the feet or the palms of the hand. After these first waves of symptoms, the infection enters a latent phase, which can lull people into a false sense of security, thinking the disease has disappeared. Unfortunately, 15 percent of people with untreated syphilis reach the late stage, which can occur up to 20 years after initial infection, and includes severe damage to the nervous system, brain, heart, or other organs, and can be fatal.

These days, a shot of penicillin is all it takes to cure syphilis. Back in the day, though, there were myriad “treatments” for syphilis — but they were highly toxic and ineffective. Unfortunately, thanks to the latent phase of syphilis, it often seemed like these treatments did work, which probably explains why folks tortured themselves with them for centuries. If only penicillin had been around: Countless people would have been spared the unpleasant — and often fatal — quackery that syphilis attracted. Continue reading

Can Herpes Be Cured Naturally?

Many of us are infected with herpes simplex virus, which can be transmitted sexually to cause genital herpes. Although herpes is incurable, there are antivirals that can help reduce symptoms. But, because not everyone wants to take pharmaceuticals, a lot of us might seek alternatives in an attempt to treat or even cure our herpes infections.


“Natural” doesn’t necessarily mean safe or effective, so be critical.


For centuries, we have treated herpes in many ways — though not necessarily successfully! In the early 1800s, a British treatment involved placing lint between the tip of the penis and the foreskin. It was claimed that this would cause herpes lesions to heal within 14 days — not coincidentally, this is about how long it takes for them to heal on their own, untreated. Later that century, a London surgeon promoted an arsenic-based solution as a cure for recurrent herpes outbreaks. He presented the cases of a couple of patients. One had been suffering from outbreaks for six years, and after a course of this treatment he allegedly never experienced them again. Another patient had been experiencing recurring outbreaks for four years, and after taking this treatment for a year, his outbreaks “became less and finally cleared altogether.”

We now know that, even without treatment, herpes outbreaks generally become less severe over time, and often stop flaring up completely. When outbreaks do occur, they clear on their own, without treatment. This phenomenon is called “regression to the mean,” and many promoters of bogus remedies rely on it for the appearance that their products work. Because we often think that two things that happen at the same time are related, and that one causes the other, we might attribute the clearing of our herpes lesions to whatever “treatment” we were taking, regardless of whether or not it actually benefited us.

The only way we can know if treatments actually work is to compare them with standard medications or placebos (such as identical-looking sugar pills) in well-designed clinical trials. In such studies, patients are assigned to either medication or placebo at random, which is called “randomization” and is like flipping a coin. And, to protect against introducing bias into the study’s outcomes, trials should be “double-blinded,” meaning that neither researchers nor patients know whether the placebo or the medication under study is being administered. The “miracle cures” you hear about usually haven’t been subjected to such scientific rigor — if they have, the results usually aren’t promising. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Antibiotic-Resistant Syphilis

Treponema pallidum under a microscope. Image: Dr. Edwin P. Ewing, Jr., CDC

The image to your right, with lively yellow splotches against a pale green background, is not a long-lost Jackson Pollack piece, and the dark squiggly lines aren’t strands of paint haphazardly splattered onto a canvas. In fact, those squiggly lines are magnified images of the spiral-shaped bacteria species Treponema pallidum. You might not have heard of T. pallidum, but you’ve probably heard of syphilis, the sexually transmitted disease (STD) that these bacteria cause. While syphilis isn’t as common as other STDs, like chlamydia and HPV, it’s still out there, and occasionally communities experience outbreaks. It’s always best for sexually active people to be screened for STDs and practice safer sex.


The evolution of syphilis strains that are resistant to certain antibiotics underscores the need to use antibiotics properly.


Syphilis can inflict serious long-term damage — in fact, before the introduction of antibiotics, syphilis was the worst STD out there! Known as the Great Pox when it descended upon Europe 500 years ago, it could cause large and painful boils. Eventually, natural selection led to T. pallidum’s evolution into a form with milder symptoms, which benefited the bacteria by enabling its less boil-ridden (and presumably more attractive) human hosts to spread it farther and wider. Nevertheless, the symptoms of syphilis, if present, still include infectious sores, and when the disease goes untreated, it can cause severe, possibly fatal, damage to the nervous system.

Back in the day, there were myriad inadequate “treatments” for syphilis, ranging from straight-up quackery to the use of partially effective but toxic chemicals such as mercury. But a century ago, in 1912, a new arsenic-based chemical called Neosalvarsan was hailed as a “magic bullet.” Unfortunately, this treatment took weeks or even more than a year to administer — and had dangerous side effects. Quack treatments continued to flourish, and it wasn’t until the widespread adoption of penicillin in the 1940s that an effective cure with few side effects was available.

But natural selection endures; in fact, by flooding T. pallidum’s habitat with certain antibiotics, we’ve created an environment that favors the organism’s evolution against us. While not as immediately threatening as antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, syphilis has been quietly evolving resistance to some of the antibiotics we use to treat it. This underscores the importance of using antibiotics correctly and emphasizing safer-sex practices, such as using latex condoms during vaginal or anal intercourse and during oral contact with a penis. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Syphilis

Treponema pallidum, the causative agent of syphilis, is seen in this electron micrograph adhering to a surface with the tapered end of its structure. Image obtained from the CDC’s Public Health Image Library.

Treponema pallidum, the causative agent of syphilis, is seen in this electron micrograph adhering to a surface with the tapered end of its structure. Image: Public Health Image Library, CDC

When syphilis first descended upon Europe, it was seen as a new plague, and anxiety and blame coalesced around this mysterious scourge. Was it a punishment from God? Was it introduced by a hated Other? Was it caused by the stars’ alignment or the presence of “bad air”? The panic it provoked foreshadowed the hysteria that surrounded the emergence of HIV in the 1980s, as syphilitics were discriminated against, feared, or thought to have received punishment for their “unbridled lust.”

We now know that syphilis is not caused by supernatural forces, foreigners, or “bad air,” but rather by a species of spiral-shaped bacteria called Treponema pallidum, which can cause infections in the vagina, anus, urethra, or penis, as well as the lips and mouth. It is mostly spread by sexual contact — vaginal or anal intercourse, as well as oral sex — in which one person comes into contact with a syphilis sore. These sores can be hidden on the cervix or in the vagina, urethra, rectum, or mouth, making it not immediately apparent that one is infected with syphilis. Syphilis can also spread to a fetus during pregnancy. Sexually active people can reduce their risk of contracting syphilis by using latex barrier methods such as condoms or dental dams. Continue reading