Syphilis and herpes are few of the most embarrassing diseases to get diagnosed with. Both syphilis and genital herpes can cause pain, itching and sores in your genital area. Do you want to know syphilis vs herpes ? This article will explore syphilis vs genital herpes, causes, symptoms, and how to get rid of it.
What is Syphilis ?
Syphilis is a highly contagious disease that’s mostly spread through sexual activity, including oral and anal sex. The infected person often doesn’t know that they have the disease and passes it on to their sexual partner.
Syphilis was once a major public health threat. It can cause serious long-term problems such as arthritis, brain damage, and blindness. There wasn’t an effective treatment until the late 1940s, when the antibiotic penicillin was developed.
According to the CDC, the rate of new cases of syphilis plummeted in the 1990s. In 2000, it reached an all-time low since reporting began in 1941. But the disease has been on the increase ever since. In 2021, the rate of syphilis in the U.S. reached 51.5 cases per 100,000 people, the highest rate since 1990.
What is Genital Herpes ?
Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Sexual contact is the primary way that the virus spreads. After the initial infection, the virus lies dormant in your body and can reactivate several times a year.
Syphilis Causes vs Herpes Causes
Syphilis is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. You get it through direct contact with a syphilis sore on someone else’s body. This usually happens during sexual activity, but the bacteria can also get into your body through cuts on your skin or through your mucous membranes.
Syphilis can’t be spread by toilet seats, doorknobs, swimming pools, hot tubs, bathtubs, shared clothing, or eating utensils.
Causes of Herpes
Two types of the herpes simplex virus (HSV) cause genital herpes:
- HSV-1. This type usually causes cold sores, but it can also cause genital herpes.
- HSV-2. This type usually causes genital herpes, but it can also cause cold sores.
Stages of syphilis vs herpes infection
The four stages of syphilis are:
Syphilis is most infectious during the first two stages. When syphilis is in the hidden, or latent, stage, the disease remains active but often doesn’t cause symptoms. Tertiary syphilis is the most destructive to health.
The primary stage of syphilis occurs about 3 to 4 weeks after a person contracts the bacteria. It begins with a small, round sore called a chancre. A chancre is painless, but it’s highly infectious. People may not even notice when they have one. This sore may appear wherever the bacteria entered the body, such as on or inside the mouth, genitals, or rectum.
On average, the sore shows up around 3 weeks after infection, but it can take between 10 to 90 days to appear. The sore remains for 2 to 6 weeks. Sometimes the only symptom will be swollen lymph nodes.
Syphilis is transmitted by direct contact with a sore. This usually occurs during sexual activity, including oral sex.
Skin rashes and a sore throat may develop during the second stage of syphilis. The rash won’t itch and is usually found on the palms and soles, but it may occur anywhere on the body. Some people don’t notice the rash before it goes away. This involves more severe symptoms, including:
- a non itchy, rough, rash
- gray or white lesions
- muscle aches
- a sore throat
- swollen lymph nodes
- patchy hair loss
- unexplained weight loss
These symptoms will go away whether treatment is received. However, without treatment, a person still has syphilis.
Secondary syphilis is often mistaken for other conditions, such as:
- pityriasis rosea
- lichen planus
For this reason, syphilis has been known as the “great imitator” Because the symptoms can be so nonspecific, people experiencing symptoms may ignore them, or sometimes clinicians don’t suspect the presence of the infection.
The third stage of syphilis is the latent, or hidden, stage. The primary and secondary symptoms disappear, and there won’t be any noticeable symptoms at this stage. However, the bacteria remain in the body. This stage could last for years before progressing to tertiary syphilis.
The last stage of infection is tertiary syphilis. About 14 to 40 percent of people with syphilis enter this stage. Tertiary syphilis can occur years or decades after the initial infection. Tertiary syphilis can be life-threatening. Some other potential outcomes of tertiary syphilis include:
- loss of hearing
- mental health conditions
- memory loss
- destruction of soft tissue and bone
- neurological disorders, such as stroke or meningitis
- heart disease
- neurosyphilis, which is an infection of the brain or spinal cord
Stages of herpes
There are two main types of the herpes simplex virus: HSV-1 and HSV-2.
- HSV-1. This type primarily causes oral herpes, characterized by cold sores or fever blisters that appear around your mouth or on your face.
- HSV-2. This primarily causes genital herpes, which involves sores that appear on or around your genitals, anus, buttocks, and inner thighs. Sores can also develop inside the vagina.
You can transmit or contract HSV-1, or oral herpes, through direct contact with a herpes sore, saliva, or other bodily secretions during an episode. If you’re shedding the virus, someone can contract it through direct contact with the site of the infection.
Examples of direct contact include:
- oral sex
- other skin-to-skin contact
In other words, if you touch a partner’s cold sore and then touch your own face or genitals shortly afterward, you could contract the virus. Many children contract the virus after being kissed or touched on the face by an adult with a cold sore.
The virus can, in theory, be transmitted through shared lip balm, razors, or drinkware and eating utensils, but this is pretty rare — older estimates suggest the virus can only live outside your body for a few hours to a few days.
To put it another way, if someone with a cold sore drank from a glass and immediately handed it to you, and you then put your mouth to the same place on the glass, you could potentially contract herpes. But the chances of that happening are fairly low.
Most of the time, the virus is transmitted through contact with sores or the site of the infection during viral shedding.
As with HSV-1, you can transmit or contract HSV-2, or genital herpes, through direct contact with a herpes sore, saliva, or other bodily secretions during an episode. HSV-2 can also be transmitted during viral shedding.
Direct contact might include:
- oral sex
- sharing sex toys during a sexual encounter
- penetrative sex
- other skin-to-skin contact at the infection site.
Tests and diagnosis of Syphilis vs Herpes
Though syphilis and herpes are sexually transmitted diseases, there are various ways to diagnose each disease.
Diagnosis of Syphilis
A doctor will perform a physical examination and ask about a person’s sexual history before conducting clinical tests to confirm syphilis.
- Blood tests: These can detect a current or past infection, as antibodies to the syphilis bacteria will be present for many years.
- Bodily fluid: A doctor can evaluate fluid from a chancre during the primary or secondary stage.
- Cerebrospinal fluid: A doctor may collect this fluid through a spinal tap and examine it to monitor the disease’s effects on the nervous system.
How is herpes simplex diagnosed?
In some cases, a doctor or clinician can diagnose HSV by examining the blisters. They might also ask about other symptoms, including flu-like symptoms and early signs, like tingling or burning.
They’ll likely request a culture to confirm the diagnosis. A culture involves swabbing fluid from the sore and sending it to a laboratory for testing.
If you believe you’ve been exposed to HSV but have no symptoms, a blood test can determine whether you have HSV antibodies. Just know that blood tests may not accurately detect HSV until 12 weeks after you’ve acquired the infection.
General STI screenings typically don’t include testing for HSV, so you’ll want to ask your doctor or clinician about getting tested for HSV if you believe you could have the virus.
You can also test yourself for HSV antibodies with an at-home testing kit.
How to Prevent syphilis vs Herpes
- Use a dental dam (a square piece of latex) or condoms during oral sex.
- Avoid sharing sex toys.
- Get screened for STIs and talk with your partners about their results.
- Syphilis can also be transmitted through shared needles. Avoid sharing needles if using injected drugs.
How to prevent genital herpes
The only way to completely avoid STDs is to not have vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
If you are sexually active, you can do the following things to lower your chances of getting genital herpes:
- Being in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who does not have herpes.
- Using condoms the right way every time you have sex.
Be aware that not all herpes sores occur in areas that a condom can cover. Also, the skin can release the virus (shed) from areas that do not have a visible herpes sore. For these reasons, condoms may not fully protect you from getting herpes.
If your sex partner(s) has/have genital herpes, you can lower your risk of getting it if:
- Your partner takes an anti-herpes medicine every day. This is something your partner should discuss with his or her healthcare provider.
- You avoid having vaginal, anal, or oral sex when your partner has herpes symptoms (i.e., during an “outbreak”).