Why Extreme Syphilis Symptoms Are Showing Up Now

After years of resurgence in the U.S., the disease is getting weird ...

THE ATLANTIC – For some, the world suddenly goes blurry.

Others describe it as having a dust storm in your eyes, or being shaken up in a snow globe.

People might see flashing lights or black spots drifting through their field of vision, or acquire a sudden sensitivity to light, worse than walking into the sunlight after having your eyes dilated. If patients aren’t treated, some will inevitably go blind.

Many medical providers never suspect the culprit: syphilis. Usually, a syphilis infection shows up first as a firm, painless sore on the genitals or inside the mouth or anus, then as a rash, often on the hands and feet.

If the infection is caught in either of these two stages, the cure is a shot of penicillin, which kills the bacteria.

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Left untreated, syphilis can enter another, more dangerous phase, attacking the heart, bones, brain, or nerves years or even decades later. Only about 1 to 5 percent of syphilis cases are thought to involve the eyes.

But now, eye symptoms are showing up seemingly all by themselves. Last year, doctors reported 17 new cases of eye syphilis to the Chicago Department of Public Health, mostly in people assigned male at birth with no other signs of the disease.

In southwest Michigan, in 2022, five women showed up at clinics with ocular syphilis that was traced back to the same male partner.

Experts are disturbed by what these cases might portend: that syphilis has been allowed to spread so widely, and for so long, that what used to be considered a fringe event might not be so rare anymore.

Because eye-syphilis symptoms can be the only noticeable sign of the disease, by the time people do get correctly diagnosed, their vision might be permanently damaged …

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