How Long Have Sexually Transmitted Diseases Been Around?

No one really wants to talk about sexually transmitted diseases or infections (STDs or STIs). If history has shown us anything, the tendency to sweep issues under the rug doesn’t get rid of the problem. It only makes them worse. Sexually transmitted diseases definitely have a history.

There has been evidence of venereal disease since ancient times, as it was more commonly called up until the late 20th century, and it’s even referenced in the Old Testament. Early on, before there was any significant medical understanding regarding these afflictions, the sickness was generally attributed to conditions characterized by deficient sanitation and hygiene, or retribution for sinful behavior.

Syphilis and gonorrhea appear to be the primary offenders that infected scores of people over the centuries. They were frequently confused, and historians have speculated that some cases may have been misdiagnosed as leprosy. While both are bacterial infections, the effects of syphilis are infinitely more serious than gonorrhea, however.

When left untreated, syphilis destroys the brain and the spinal cord, ultimately leading to mental dysfunction, blindness, paralysis, and possibly death.

These infections were so prevalent across Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries. Syphilis and gonorrhea outbreaks were labeled as new plagues. Because this time period coincides with an upsurge in exploration and expansion by the major powers of the age, many tended to associate the epidemic with the sailors and soldiers who traveled to distant lands, returning with more than treasure or battle scars.

Although there have been studies trying to connect Columbus’ voyages to the Americas with the crew contracting syphilis from the native population, or Cook’s travels in the South Pacific transferring gonorrhea between remote locations, the consequences pale in comparison to the devastation caused by the disease that Europeans brought to these isolated regions. For example, smallpox wiped out a significant portion of the indigenous people in the Americas.

There have been a host of treatments and preventative measures over the years. Early attempts to curtail the effects of syphilis and gonorrhea in the 18th and 19th centuries included mercury, arsenic, and sulfur. Needless to say, many people died from mercury poisoning with their infection still intact.

The Contagious Diseases Acts were passed in Great Britain during the latter part of the 19th century in an attempt to protect soldiers from diseased prostitutes. In an unusual turn of events, the legislation did more to rally women around the feminist movement than prevent the spread of disease. The laws were eventually repealed.

The first successful treatment of syphilis was recorded in 1910. By the 20th century, penicillin and other antibiotics were commonly used to treat bacterial ailments like syphilis and gonorrhea. As the ability to efficiently treat sexually transmitted diseases improved, reports indicated that promiscuity was also on the rise.

There has been a steady increase in the percentage of adolescents engaging in sexual activity since the mid-1900’s. There must be ongoing campaigns to spread awareness of the potential pitfalls like STDs and unplanned pregnancies.

Today, it’s easier than ever to take care of your sexual health. While it may be awkward to talk about sex, discussing a potential STD is an even more uncomfortable situation, whether it’s a conversation with a physician or your partner. Fortunately, there are services where you can monitor your sexual health in the privacy of your own home.

With websites like, you can test for various conditions, so you always know what’s going on with your body. It’s essential to do everything you can to protect yourself, and knowledge is power.

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