Drug Use Syphilis: Can the Two Be Linked?
Syphilis is often only categorized as a sexually transmitted disease, but the truth is, the infection can be acquired in other ways. Health officials are now seeing drug use syphilis-related cases across the country. Federal health officials are attributing a drastic increase in syphilis cases to addiction to methamphetamine and other drugs.
What Is Syphilis?
Syphilis is a highly contagious disease caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. The infection is spread primarily by sexual activity, including oral and anal sex. However, syphilis can also be acquired through prolonged kissing or sharing of needles during drug use.
In many cases, the sores caused by the disease go unnoticed. Making it more difficult for the infected person to recognize they need medical attention. There are three distinct phases of syphilis.
1. Early or primary syphilis
Newly affected individuals may suffer one or more syphilis sores. The spots are typically small and often painless. The sores occur most often in the genital area or around the mouth within 10 to 90 days of exposure. The average time for a syphilis sore to develop is three weeks.
2. The secondary stage
The second phase of syphilis is distinct due to the red, “copper penny” rash that spreads on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet. It is possible for the rash to occur on different parts of the body. Other symptoms of secondary stage – which typically lasts one to three months – include warts in the groin area, white sores inside the mouth, weight loss, fever, and swollen lymph glands.
3. Tertiary, or late, syphilis
If left untreated, syphilis will advance to the tertiary phase. Severe health issues like damage to the nerves, brain, and heart may occur. The infection may even result in paralysis, blindness, dementia, deafness, impotence, or death.
A simple blood test at a doctor’s office or health clinic will reveal if a syphilis infection is present.
Drug Use Syphilis Statistics
Syphilis rates are reaching record highs across the U.S. Diagnosed cases increased by 73 percent nationwide and 156 percent for women from 2013 to 2017. Nevada, California and Louisiana reported the highest rates of the disease.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of syphilis infection more than doubled in heterosexual men and women between 2013 and 2017. In 2017, the center reported 30,644 new cases of primary and secondary syphilis cases – the stages when the disease is most easily transferred - a 10.17 percent increase from the prior year.
Health experts say it’s not just sexual contact that’s creating the alarming statistics. Injectable drug use among those with the first two stages of syphilis is far more common than in the rest of the population. Needle sharing and drug use is among the leading causes of growing syphilis cases. Ten percent of women with primary and secondary syphilis said they had used injectable drugs in the past year.
The drastic increase is syphilis transmission among heterosexuals is being blamed, in large part, on drug use — and the dangerous sexual activities linked to it. In an interview with Kaiser Health News, Dr. Sara Kennedy, medical director of Planned Parenthood Northern California, explains in addition to the use of dirty needles, drug users may avoid condoms, have sex with multiple partners or offer sex as payment for drugs.
“I think it’s impossible to eradicate syphilis and congenital syphilis unless we are simultaneously addressing the meth-use and IV-use epidemic,” Kennedy said during the interview.
Springboard Recovery is dedicated to stepping into the much-needed drug addiction and recovery role to reduce the skyrocketing syphilis rate.
Dr. Sarah Kidd, lead researcher and medical officer at the CDC's division of STD prevention, says substance abuse has a direct effect on the syphilis rate.
"While we don't know the precise role that substance use may play in syphilis increases, we do know that substance use, particularly methamphetamine and injection drug use, has been associated with sexual behaviors that increase risk of acquiring syphilis and other STDs," said Dr. Kidd in an interview with HealthDay.
More than one-third of women and one-quarter of heterosexual men with syphilis reported using methamphetamine within the previous year. Recognizing the link between drug use and the disease is the first step toward better health.
What many may not realize is that the treatment for syphilis, if caught within the first year of being infected, is simple. A single dose of penicillin typically has the power to destroy the infection. Curing syphilis is only one part of ending the epidemic.
Those who use drugs are less likely to seek medical care, so when the brave individuals who seek assistance come to Springboard Recovery, we do more than offer a drug screening. Our approach to wellness and sober living is completed through a four-step drug treatment plan.
We first assess your history of drug use. Next, we develop a treatment plan that is tailored to your individual needs. The best results come from customized plans, so we take the time to work with you one-on-one to find the best-fit treatment available. The third step moves into support groups. In addition to following a customized treatment plan, you’ll receive the support of a safe group. The fourth element of our drug treatment plan is behavioral therapy. We want to help you identify the reasons for your addiction so you can learn to overcome those challenges and remain sober.
By building a strong community that stands with those affected by drug addiction, we can drastically reduce the number of syphilis cases and treat the larger problem of substance dependency. Reach out to Springboard Recovery for a confidential addiction assessment or to find more information about how to help a loved one who may be suffering from drug use.