With the number of reported cases of syphilis on the rise across the United States and in Montana, here are four things you should know about this sexually transmitted disease.

1. Syphilis, was once thought to be nearly eliminated, has become a significant public health concern in in Yellowstone County and the rest of the state. Usually, less than eight cases are reported in Montana each year. So far this year, 63 cases have been reported in the state and 22 of those were reported in Yellowstone County from January through mid-September of this year. In Montana, syphilis cases have included males and females of all races, ranging in age from 19 to 62. While cases among heterosexuals have been reported, men who have sex with men continue to make up a majority of the syphilis cases in Montana.

2. Syphilis, a bacterial infection that is one of the oldest diseases know to humans, can be transmitted by direct contact with a syphilis sore during sexual contact. It can be cured with the right antibiotics, but without treatment it can eventually lead to severe health problems. One of the most serious complications is congenital syphilis which can happen when a woman with untreated syphilis gives birth. Up to 40 percent of babies born to women with untreated syphilis die from the infection.

The disease is known as the “Great Imitator” because so many of the signs and symptoms are indistinguishable from other diseases. The painless syphilis sore that you would get after you are first infected can be confused for an ingrown hair, zipper cut, or other seemingly harmless bump.

3. Syphilis is divided into stages, with different signs and symptoms associated with each stage. During the first or primary stage, a single sore or multiple sores may be present. These sores are usually, but not always, firm, round, and painless. In the secondary stage, symptoms include skin rashes on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, swollen lymph nodes and fever. The signs and symptoms of primary and secondary syphilis can be mild, and they might not be noticed.

There may also be or mucous membrane lesions in the mouth, vagina or anus. During the latent stage, there are no signs or symptoms. Tertiary syphilis is associated with severe medical problems and is usually diagnosed by a doctor with the help of multiple tests. It can affect the heart, brain and other organs of the body.

4. A few simple preventative measures will help keep you healthy:

  • Practice abstinence.
  • If you are sexually active, establish mutually monogamous partnerships or decrease the number of sex partners.
  • Practice correct and consistent use of condoms.
  • Pregnant women should be screened at their first prenatal visit.
  • Have an honest and open talk with your health care provider. Ask about testing for syphilis or other sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Avoid high-risk behaviors such as unprotected sex, sex while intoxicated, hookups and anonymous sex.

The take-away message: Know your risk. If you are sexually active, talk to your health care provider about getting tested. Health care providers can do their part to combat this public health threat by doing risk assessments on patients to ensure appropriate testing, treatment and reporting to public health authorities. Public health nurses track and notify sexual partners to stop the spread of syphilis and other communicable diseases.

Tamalee St. James, director of Community and Family Health Services may be reached at 247-3357 or tamalee.stj@riverstonehealth.org.