Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection created by a type of bacteria known as Treponema pallidum. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2013, more than 56,400 cases of syphilis were reported in the United States. And according to the Mayo Clinic, the rate of women infected with syphilis has been reducing in the United States, but the rate among men, particularly homosexual men, has been increasing.
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The first sign of syphilis is a small, painless sore. It can show up on your sexual organs, rectum, or inside your mouth. This sore is called a chancre. People often fail to notice it right away.
Syphilis can be difficult to diagnose. You can be infected without showing any signs and symptoms for years. However, the earlier you discover the infection, the better. Syphilis can stay untreated for a long time can cause major damage to important organs, like the heart and brain.
Syphilis is only spread through direct contact with syphilitic chancres. It can’t be passed on by sharing a toilet with another person, wearing another person’s clothing, or using another person’s eating utensils.
Stages of Syphilis Infection
The four stages of syphilis are:
Syphilis is most infectious in the first two stages.
When syphilis is in the hidden, or latent, stage, the disease stays active but often with no signs or symptoms and is not contagious to others. Tertiary syphilis is the most destructive to your health.
The primary stage of syphilis happens about three to four weeks after you’re infected with the bacteria. It starts with a small, round sore called a chancre. A chancre is painless, but it’s highly infectious. This sore may showup wherever the bacteria entered your body, such as on or inside your mouth, genitals, or rectum.
On average, the sore appears around three weeks after infection, but it can take between 10 and 90 days to appear. The sore remains for anywhere between two to six weeks.
Syphilis is a transmitted by direct contact with a sore. This usually happens during sexual activity, including oral sex.
During the second stage of syphilis, you may experience skin rashes and a sore throat. The rash won’t itch and is usually found on your palms and soles, but it may happen anywhere on the body. Some people don’t notice the rash before it goes away.
Other symptoms of secondary syphilis may include:
- swollen lymph glands
- weight loss
- hair loss
- aching joints
These symptoms might go away whether or not you receive treatment. However, without treatment you’ll still be infected.
Secondary syphilis is often mistaken for another condition.
This is the third stage of syphilis and is the latent or hidden stage. The primary and secondary symptoms disappear, and you won’t have any noticeable symptoms at this stage. However, you will still get infected with syphilis. The secondary symptoms can reappear, or you could remain in this stage for years before progressing to tertiary syphilis.
The last stage of infection is tertiary syphilis. Approximately 15 to 30 percent of people who don’t receive treatment for syphilis will enter this stage. Tertiary syphilis can occur years or decades after you’re initially infected. Tertiary syphilis can be life-threatening. Some other potential outcomes of tertiary syphilis include:
- mental illness
- memory loss
- destruction of soft tissue and bone
- neurological disorders, such as stroke or meningitis
- heart disease
- neurosyphilis, which is an infection of the brain or spinal cord
How Is Syphilis Diagnosed?
If you think you might have syphilis, meet your doctor as soon as possible. The doctor will take a blood or urine sample to run tests, and they’ll also conduct a thorough physical examination. If a sore is present, your doctor will take a sample from the sore toknow if the syphilis bacteria are present.
If a doctor feels that you’re having nervous system problems because of tertiary syphilis, you may need a spinal tap, or lumbar puncture. During this procedure, your spinal fluid is collected so that your doctor can test for bacteria.
If you’re pregnant, the doctor might screen you for syphilis because the bacteria can be in your body without you knowing it. This is to keep the fetus from being infected with congenital syphilis. Congenital syphilis can cause severe damage in a newborn. It can even be fatal.
Treating and Curing Syphilis
Primary and secondary syphilis are easy to treat with a penicillin injection. Penicillin is one of the most widely used antibiotics and is usually effective in treating syphilis. People who are allergic to penicillin will likely be treated with a different oral antibiotic, such as doxycycline, azithromycin, or ceftriaxone.
If you have neurosyphilis, you’ll get daily doses of penicillin intravenously. This will often need a brief hospital stay. Unfortunately, the damage caused by late syphilis can’t be reversed. The bacteria can be killed, but treatment will most likely focus on easing pain and discomfort.
During your treatment, ensure to avoid sexual contact until all sores on your body are healed and your doctor tells you it’s safe to resume sex. If you’re sexually active, your partner should be treated as well. You shouldn’t start sexual activity until both of your treatments are complete.