There are numerous connections between HIV and syphilis. Two of the most important are that people are at increased physical risk for both receiving and transmitting the HIV virus if they have an untreated case of syphilis. The very behavior that might result in contraction of syphilis elevates this risk even more. People who may be vulnerable to one sexually transmitted disease are vulnerable to them all, usually because of their behavioral approach to sexual relations.
In the early stages of syphilis infection, people develop sores or lesions in, on, or around the genitals. These open sores are one way HIV infected fluids can more easily enter the bloodstream. Thus, one of the connections between HIV and syphilis is that the expression of syphilis disrupts the barrier to the bloodstream provided by unbroken skin. This means if a person infected with syphilis has sexual relations with a person infected with HIV, the likelihood of getting HIV significantly increases.
The link between HIV and syphilis also works in the reverse. Since HIV is passed through body fluids, contact with the open sores of a person who has syphilis and HIV elevates risk of acquiring both illnesses. The presence of open sores makes transmission of HIV more likely. Additionally, when people have syphilis and HIV, syphilis may result in a higher amount of HIV virus being present in all bodily fluids like blood and semen. So the person with both viruses is more contagious with HIV than usual from two perspectives.
Experts on sexually transmitted diseases also point out that the risky behavior involved in contracting syphilis is the same as risky behavior that might result in getting viruses like HIV. This means that another connection between HIV and syphilis is they are both more likely when people are not practicing safer sex. Anyone with syphilis is automatically suspected of having HIV. When pregnant women have tests for syphilis, a positive test would be followed by HIV testing. Anyone testing positive for any type of sexually transmitted disease might be counseled to also take a test for HIV to rule out presence of the virus.
Given the different links between HIV and syphilis, it’s easy to establish some guidelines on how to handle syphilis infection. First, it should be treated, and people should abstain from sexual intercourse until the condition is fully resolved. The greater likelihood of HIV and syphilis being present together suggests that a positive diagnosis of syphilis should be followed by HIV testing. Those people who have contracted either illness, or who have discussed at-risk sexual behavior also need counseling, education, and encouragement to adopt safer sex practices in the future.