Thousands of people are receiving treatment for syphilis, but a number of those may have falsely tested positive for the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, about 32 percent of people tested under a reverse testing method and received false-positive results for syphilis.
"More and more laboratories are using reverse sequence syphilis screening, which is a technique that reverses the order of the way tests are traditionally used to screen for syphilis," said Rachel Powell, a CDC spokeswoman.
The problem is that reversing the order of testing makes it difficult to differentiate syphilis antibodies from other proteins in the blood. This means it sometimes gives a positive result for something other than syphilis, CDC scientists said.
Recognizing this testing problem is just the first step in fixing it.
"The CDC is now working with partners to get a better understanding of how commonly reverse sequence screening is used," Powell said.
So what should someone do if he or she has been diagnosed with syphilis?
"If they're saying there's a problematic test and that there's a higher percent of false-positives than originally thought, then yes, do a retest," said Samantha Evans, a sexual health educator.
Because these false-positives were released, some people may be taking medications to treat a sexually transmitted infection they don't have. The most common treatment for syphilis, penicillin, can have side effects such as diarrhea, fever, severe skin rash and even seizures, according to www.drugs.com.
To make sure you're getting the most accurate test, Evans recommends asking local lab technicians which test they'll be doing.
If you're more interested in preventing infections like syphilis, Evans stresses using protection during sexual contact and intercourse.
"Condoms are important, but flavored condoms and dental dams wouldn't be a bad idea, either, because you can get the syphilis sores in your mouth and on your lips," Evans said. "But when it comes to any sexually transmitted infection, protecting yourself and talking to your partners will help lower your risk across the board."
UF students can get tested for sexually transmitted infections and diseases on campus at the Student Health Care Center, or locally at Planned Parenthood or the Alachua County Health Department.