Man's Headaches and Eye Pain Turns out to Be Syphilis That Had Spread to His Head

A man in Australia suffering from headaches and pain in his eyes was diagnosed with the sexually transmitted infection (STI) syphilis, which had affected his nervous system.

The unnamed 39-year-old man complained to doctors in an emergency room of headaches and pain in his eye area, according to a case study published in the journal BMJ Case Reports.

His vision was normal but when he moved his eyes the pain got worse, the Mail Online reported citing the case report. He had experienced headaches for three weeks.

Tests revealed he had swelling in his optic nerves, but scans didn't come up with anything unusual, wrote paper author Dr. Jason Yosar, of the Ophthalmology department at Sydney Eye Hospital, Australia.

A blood test, however, revealed the antibodies for the bacteria that causes syphilis was present in his blood.

The man was given antibiotics through a drip for two weeks. After a month, the swelling in his right optic nerve had reduced, while the swelling in the left had worsened.

However, his vision was unaffected and he no longer had symptoms or signs of nerve problems in his eye.

The patient was diagnosed with neurosyphilis, which affects the nervous system.

Syphilis is split into four stages: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, neurosyphilis can develop at any of these stages stage. Symptoms include a severe headache, problems with coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, numbness, and problems with memory and thinking known as dementia.

eye, stock, getty
A stock image of an eye. Getty

As an STD, syphilis is spread when a person comes into contact with a sore during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. The sores can develop on or around the penis, vagina, anus, rectum, on the lips and inside the mouth. A woman can also pass syphilis on to her baby.

The man said he was in an open relationship and had casual unprotected sex with several male partners, the Mail Online reported citing the case report. This is thought to be the second case recorded in medical literature where both a patient's eyes were affected but they didn't also have HIV.

Syphilis was almost eliminated in the U.S., but cases are growing, particularly among among men who have sex with men. Cases increased by 14.4 percent between 2017 and 2018 to 35,063 primary and secondary cases, with 64 percent among men who have sex with men.

The CDC recommends using latex condoms correctly when having sex to avoid catching STDs like syphillis.

As evidenced by the man's experiences, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns syphilis can cause serious health problems if left untreated.

In the primary stage, firm, round but pain-free sores generally, but not always, develop at the site of infection, such as the genitals. These will fade in between thee to six weeks. The second stage is characterized by a fever, reddish brown skin rash, and swollen lymph nodes. "The signs and symptoms of primary and secondary syphilis can be mild, and they might not be noticed," according to the CDC.

The latent stage has no symptoms or signs, but in the tertiary stage organs including the heart and brain as well as the nervous system can be affected, and can result in death. This occurs 10 to 30 years after being infected.