If you’re a fan of Benjamin Franklin, you might have heard the rumor that he had syphilis. The truth is, there is no scholarly evidence that he had the disease.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. It can be diagnosed by a blood test or by swabbing a sore.

What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD). It can cause serious long-term problems, such as arthritis and brain damage.

The first sign of syphilis is usually a painless sore called a chancre. This sore develops where the bacteria entered your body.

These sores are typically firm, round and painless. They may appear within 10 days to 3 months after you’re exposed.

They are typically in the area of your genitals, rectum or mouth. They can go unnoticed if they’re hidden inside your body or covered with skin.

If you have syphilis, it’s important to get treated right away. This is to prevent the infection from getting worse or spreading to your partner or baby during pregnancy.

Treatment is usually given as a course of antibiotics, often penicillin. You may need to have blood tests at 3, 6 and 12 weeks after you start treatment to make sure the antibiotics are working.

Secondary syphilis

The bacteria that cause syphilis enter your body through the skin, mouth or anus. They form a painless skin ulcer (chancre) at the infection site and spread through your blood.

Secondary syphilis is the next stage of this infection. It can develop in about 2 to 8 weeks after the primary rash has appeared.

It may appear as a rough, red or brown rash that begins in one area and spreads over your entire body. You may also have skin rashes in your mouth, vagina or anus.

If you have secondary syphilis, it is important to get treatment and keep it from spreading. Getting treated early makes it easier to cure and prevents the complications of syphilis, including tertiary syphilis, which can damage your brain, nerves, eyes, heart, liver, bones and joints.

Tertiary syphilis

Tertiary syphilis is a serious infection that can damage organs in the body, including the heart, brain and nerves. If left untreated, it can cause permanent disability and even death.

It develops when Treponema pallidum enters your body during sexual contact. It can also pass to a pregnant woman and her unborn baby during pregnancy or delivery.

During the early stages of syphilis, painless sores called chancres appear in your mouth, vagina or anus (under the foreskin of the penis). They heal on their own after 3 to 6 weeks.

Then, a rough red or brown rash begins in one area of your body and covers most of your skin. It can be painful or itchy.

It’s a serious infection that affects organs in the body, including the heart, nerves and bones. If left untreated, it can cause long-term disability and even death. It can also increase your risk of HIV infection and cause problems during pregnancy.

Congenital syphilis

Congenital syphilis is an infection that can cause stillbirth or infant death. It can also lead to serious birth defects including brain and nerve problems.

Syphilis is transmitted from mother to fetus through the placenta or during labor and delivery. It’s completely preventable.

Women with syphilis need to get regular screening and treatment in pregnancy, starting at the first prenatal visit and again during the third trimester. Untreated syphilis is linked to stillbirth, infant death, and severe birth defects such as brain and nerve damage, as well as deafness or blindness.

In the United States, syphilis cases have increased at rates that are eye-popping, especially in certain states. In Mississippi, for example, syphilis cases more than tripled between 2016 and 2021.

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