I had syphilis, and even though I’ve been treated, I still feel really gross and embarrassed about it. Will I need to tell my next boyfriend that I used to have it?
It sounds like syphilis has taken a bigger toll on your mental health than it ever did on your physical health. I’m so sorry that you’re feeling all this shame and guilt. Unfortunately, we live in a sex-negative culture that attaches a lot of stigma to STIs (sexually transmitted infections). This means that people have unfair, negative (and often just plain wrong) beliefs about STIs. Having an STI does NOT make you dirty, slutty, gross, or anything else.
In fact, we think you should be proud of yourself for taking care of your sexual health! You got tested and treated for syphilis, which can be a scary thing to do. While syphilis is mostly no big deal if caught early, if it’s left untreated it can cause serious, long-term damage like blindness and neurological damage.
For those who aren’t familiar with “The Pox,” syphilis is a bacterial infection, like strep throat or pneumonia. This means that it can be cured with antibiotics. You shouldn’t have sex until 7 days after you finish treatment, because you can still infect someone else. However, after that you’re considered syphilis-free. Just make sure that your previous partners have been tested and treated, too. If they’re not and you have sex again, you run the risk of re-infection. If you haven’t already, you should notify anyone you’ve had sex with in the last 6 months or so that they’re at risk of having syphilis. Ask your health care provider exactly how far back you should notify. You can check out LetThemKnow.Org for more tips on how to tell past partners that they might have an STI.
Having syphilis once does NOT change your chances of getting syphilis again, so all the normal safer sex rules still apply. This means getting tested regularly, talking to your partners about STI testing, and using condoms for oral, anal and vaginal sex. However, because syphilis is curable, you do NOT have to tell your future sexual partners that you had syphilis.
We know that it can be hard to shake off all the negative stereotypes about STIs in our culture. For now, concentrate on taking care of yourself. Do things you like and that make you feel good, like exercising, taking a calm bubble bath, watching a favorite TV show, and hanging out with your friends. Think about what you would say if your best friend told you that they had syphilis—you (hopefully!) wouldn’t shame them or make them feel bad, but comfort them and reassure them. Tell yourself those same words of love and kindness. You deserve them.
If you keep feeling gross and anxious, begin avoiding activities you used to enjoy, or just don’t feel like yourself, consider talking to a therapist or other healthcare provider. They can help you work through some of your feelings, and give you the tools to get back to being your healthiest self. If you live near NYC and are 10-22 years old, you can come to Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center for completely free, confidential and judgement-free health care, including counseling and STI testing.