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I thought I just had a mouth ulcer but it turned out to be syphilis

I thought I just had a mouth ulcer but it turned out to be syphilis

CREATED ON // Wednesday, 09 December 2015 Author // Dr Brad McKay

Ask Dr Brad: How did I get it and how do I get rid of it?

I thought I just had a mouth ulcer, but my doctor diagnosed me with syphilis - WTF!?! I thought we’d gotten rid of syphilis from around the world. How did I get it and how do I get rid of it?


Syphilis is like Madonna - just when you thought she was gone for good she announces an Australian tour.

Madonna was first recognised when her self-titled album was released in 1983, but syphilis was recognised much earlier, spreading around Europe in the late 15th century before quickly commencing its world tour.

Syphilis probably originated in Spain but the English, Germans and Italians all blamed the French, calling it the ‘French Disease’. In France they tried to distance themselves by calling it the ‘Spanish pox’, but the name didn’t stick. Eventually the French decided to avoid associating it with a particular country and called it ‘la grande vérole’ (‘The Great Pox’ - as opposed to ‘Smallpox’). Madonna was born of Italian descent.

Syphilis is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum and under the microscope it looks like a long, thin piece of spaghetti, twisted into the shape of an over-stretched spring. 50% of infected peeps won’t get any symptoms, but fortunately we can diagnose it with a blood test.




Unprotected anal, vaginal or oral sex can spread syphilis, but you can also get it from close skin-to-skin contact. Treponema pallidum twists itself like a tiny corkscrew into its new host. It multiplies at the site of infection and creates a painless ulcer called a ‘chancre’. Most people freak out if they notice an ulcer at the end of their dick, but if it’s on your butt, stomach or thighs, people can easily mistake it for an ingrown hair. Chancres around your butthole can feel like haemorrhoids, whilst oral chancres are often thought to be mouth or tongue ulcers. You won’t notice anything if you get a chancre up your arse.

Syphilitic chancres usually show up a few weeks after sexual contact, but can sometimes appear 3 months after canoodling. Some people feel embarrassed and avoid going to the doctor for a check up. Instead they attempt to heal their genitals by applying all sorts of creams or pastes. Home remedies do nothing but people feel successful when their ulcer naturally fades away after a few weeks - but a disappearing ulcer doesn’t mean you’re cured.

The chancre normally fades as the bacteria buries itself deep into your body and spreads everywhere. A red or brown, spotty rash can show up all over your body, including the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet. You can get swollen glands, a high fever, mouth sores, a sore throat, muscle pain, headaches and generally feel terrible.

These symptoms go away even without treatment as your immune system starts to fight back. But untreated syphilis stays dormant in your body and after 10-20 years of hibernation, it slowly starts to eat away and destroy your internal organs. It can cause catastrophic and irreparable damage including dementia, paralysis, blindness, heart failure and death.

But it’s not all doom and gloom because penicillin injections can cure syphilis! Infections discovered early can be treated with one injection of antibiotics in each buttock, given on the same day. If the infection has been present for more than 2 years you may need a longer treatment.

I’m more than happy if Madonna lives in our hearts and minds forever, but don’t let syphilis get that chance - see your doctor for a check up!




If you have a question for Dr Brad McKay regarding gay men’s health, including sexual matters, send a brief description of your concerns to checkup [@] gaynewsnetwork [dot] com [dot] au. No attachments please.


Top image: Image used for illustrative purposes only. Photo: 123RF 


Dr Brad McKay

Dr Brad McKay

Dr Brad McKay (MBBS, FRACGP) is an Aussie GP and host of the TV show Embarrassing Bodies Down Under. He aims to decrease stigma and increase awareness of embarrassing health issues. He is dedicated to improve gay men’s physical, sexual and mental health. He is seen regularly on Mornings (Nine Network), The Project (Ten), can be heard regularly on Tony Delroy’s Nightlife, ABC Local Radio, podcasts and at a public speaking event near you. He currently works as a GP at East Sydney Doctors in Darlinghurst, Sydney.

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