Taken by themselves, HIV and syphilis are serious enough, but combined they present a serious risk for anyone infected. Studies show that a person infected with syphilis is two to five times as likely to contact HIV, and not only because they practice unsafe sex. And it’s not just syphilis. Those with gonorrhea or herpes are also at increased risk for contracting HIV. Furthermore, those with HIV and another sexually transmitted disease, or STD, are more likely to infect others. There are a number of other factors that make dual infection likely.
One of the results, or symptoms, of syphilis is a sore, or chancre, that appears at the site of the original infection. When intact, the skin acts as a natural barrier to HIV transmission. A syphilitic chancre decreases the skin’s defenses to infection. The skin around the sore is compromised and worse, the chancre can actually turn into an open ulcer. Since this chancre appears at the site of the original infection, it is usually found on or near a sexual organ or other orifice, e.g. mouth or anus, making it even more prone to HIV infection. It’s not only syphilis that can make a person more vulnerable to HIV infection. Any STD, such as herpes, that produces a sore or ulcer can have the same effect.
Even an STD that doesn’t produce an open sore, such as chlamydia, stimulates white blood cells in the genital area to help the body fight the infection. Since HIV attacks white blood cells, an existing STD gives HIV more targets to attack, thus increasing the likelihood of infection. In addition, the immune system of those fighting an infection, STD or otherwise, is already compromised, making a secondary infection more likely.
Another factor is the increased concentration of HIV in the genital fluids (e.g. semen) of those infected with both HIV and another STD. It’s not known at this time why a second STD increases HIV concentration in a person’s genital fluids, but the more HIV in those fluids, the greater the risk that person has of infecting a sexual partner, especially during unprotected sex.
There is hope. Studies have shown that early treatment of an STD, such as syphilis, gonorrhea, or herpes, mitigates the effect of dual infection. In other words, treatment of syphilis will not increase a person’s HIV infection rate, or at least not as much as someone who does not treat their STD. Treatment also helps lower the concentration of HIV in a person’s genital fluids.
Testing can be done in any number of facilities, from your family physician, to a clinic, to a confidential testing facility. Sure, receiving a positive result can be scary, but not as scary as contracting HIV. If you think you may have an STD then get tested, and get tested soon.