Some people hear about syphilis and they think about the past. After all, syphilis has been around for centuries with a cure having been produced less than 80 years ago. Most people might not think of this STD as a threat but as bacteria becomes more resistant to certain treatments, the infection is making a comeback across the U.S. Testing for syphilis during any STD check up is becoming more vital.

What is syphilis? Syphilis is a bacterial STD that can cause long-term complications and possible death if not treated correctly. Although the majority of patients exhibit no symptoms, the first outward sign of syphilis can be is a small painless sore or sores on the infected area of the body. This is the primary stage and it can last 3 to 6 weeks. If the STD goes untreated during the primary stage it can enter into the secondary stage. In this stage, symptoms include a rash, fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and fatigue.Without treatment at this point, your infection could move to the latent or even late stages of syphilis. Symptoms of the late stage of syphilis include muscle movement issues, paralysis , numbness, blindness, and dementia. In the late stages of syphilis, the disease damages your internal organs and can result in death.

That’s a pretty serious end game for syphilis. However, there is plenty of hope should you receive a positive diagnosis. Syphilis can be cured with antibiotics. As we said though, antibiotics as a cure only showed up about 80 years ago. Before then, treatments were frightening.



For centuries, a common treatment of infection, including syphilis, was the practice of bloodletting. Bloodletting was based on an ancient medical theory, originating from Egypt around 1000 B.C., that stated there were four bodily fluids (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile) and all four fluids had to remain in balance with one another in order to preserve a person’s health. Since infections, such a syphilis, were thought to be caused by an excess of blood, a person would have blood drained out of them.

Bloodletting had many forms. One common method included creating an incision into a vein  or artery to drain the excess blood. Another ancient method was known as cupping. Cupping was the act of heating small glass cups and placing them over the skin in order to create a vacuum that would break tiny blood vessels under the skin. Lastly, a very popular method of bloodletting included the use of leeches that fed on the blood of patients.

While bloodletting would have been recommended by a doctor, the actual surgery was performed by a barber. In fact, the red and white striped poles outside of barbershops were originally intended to advertise bloodletting services.



In the Middle Ages, many people suffering from venereal disease were sent to live in leper colonies. Throughout Europe, leper colonies were established to prevent the spread of many diseases. Once many outbreaks of venereal disease began to subside, patients were sent to hospitals for treatment. The treatment of choice at the time? You guessed it! It was mercury.

Mercury is the earliest documented chemical treatment for syphilis. Since it had been used to treat other skin diseases such as leprosy previously, doctors in that era saw its application to syphilitic sores as a natural conclusion. Giorgio Sommariva of Verona was the first person on record to use mercury to treat syphilis in 1496. Mercury was used in the form of ointments, oral administration, and vapor baths. Such treatments remained popular for three centuries. In the 1800’s, mercury was used so liberally to nearly any ulcer found, that many patients were more injured from the treatment then from their ailment.  Over time, it was learned that mercury was not a proper treatment for syphilis and often caused various forms of poisoning.


Bonus Information: Clapping

Like syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia are bacterial infections. Treatment for these STDs was scary too. Gonorrhea has a little known nickname. It’s “the clap.” The meaning behind this nickname is terrifying. Before antibiotics, if you were a man and you got gonorrhea or chlamydia, your treatment options were painful. Basically, doctors would recommend that you place your penis against a heavy, sturdy object. Once secured, you would take another heavy object and smash it against your genitals. This was meant to force any infectious fluids out of your genital regions. This treatment could often cause more damage than it would cause good.
So, there you have it. Before antibiotics, treatment for STDs could cause a great deal of harm to a patient seeking relief from the symptoms of their infection. Luckily, today, we have penicillin to help cure us of bacterial infections such as chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. If you are concerned that you may have been exposed to STDs, you should seek STD testing services right away. This is the only way to get proper treatment.

1 The History of Syphilis and its Treatment
2 In a world with no antibiotics, how did doctors treat infection?
3 Gonorrhea and the Clap: The Slap Down Treatment