What Is Eye Syphilis? The Severe Symptom Doctors Are Seeing amid the STD Epidemic

Doctors are seeing more patients with unusual vision and eye symptoms due to the sexually transmitted infection

Getty Images/iStockphoto
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Amid the current syphilis “epidemic” in the U.S., doctors are seeing more patients with unusual vision and eye symptoms due to the sexually transmitted infection.

A January 2024 CDC report stated that more than 207,000 Americans were diagnosed with syphilis, the highest number reported since the 1950s.

Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is usually spread through sexual contact, according to the Mayo Clinic, and usually presents as painless sores that spread the disease. Although it often goes undetected, the CDC says that it’s important to seek medical care to prevent the infection from progressing to the next, more dangerous stage.

If left untreated, the infection can lead to cases of ocular syphilis.

General symptoms of ocular syphilis include red eyes, spots in your vision (eye floaters), eye pain, light sensitivity, abnormal eye movements, blurred vision or vision loss, lesions on the eyes, and painless sores on the eyelid, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

On April 24 at the 2024 Epidemic Intelligence Service Conference, researchers presented a new study finding that there were more than two dozen cases with these kinds of symptoms in Chicago last year, with a third of those cases being in the early stages of the infections, CNN reports.

Although vision loss is a symptom that can be associated with syphilis, it is typically only seen at much later phases.

“Providers definitely need to be screening more and be aware that this is what we’re seeing,” lead study author Dr. Amy Nham, who works with the Chicago Department of Public Health, told CNN.

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ADAM GAULT/SPL/Getty Images A doctor examines a patient’s eyes.
ADAM GAULT/SPL/Getty Images A doctor examines a patient’s eyes.

Related: Why Are So Many People Getting Syphilis? An Expert Explains the Uptick in Cases

The study stated that the most common symptoms reported by patients were headache, personality changes, altered mental status and eye problems like vision loss, light sensitivity or eye swelling, per the outlet.

“They’re not the most specific symptoms, which is why it’s really important that providers are doing appropriate screening and asking patients for risk factors,” Nham added.

Additionally, a CDC case report published November 2023 also revealed a cluster of five cases of ocular syphilis in Michigan, all in women with a common male sexual partner.

The five women, aged 40-60, all received a diagnosis of ocular syphilis after reporting symptoms including blurred vision, headache, hearing loss, double vision, eye floaters, and light sensitivity.

“Patients are very surprised, and most of the lay public doesn’t think of syphilis involving the eye,” Dr. Rahul Khurana, spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, told TODAY. “Untreated syphilis in the eye is devastating because it can lead to blindness.”

Khurana told the outlet that patients are typically treated with an intravenous antibiotic for 10 to 14 days and an anti-inflammatory medication. He urged eye doctors to keep a “high index of suspicion” and rule out syphilis when patients have any eye inflammation.

"With the incidence of STDs and syphilis on the rise in the community, I think everyone should be aware of it," Khurana added.

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