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Syphilis

What is it?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease/infection caused by a bacterium called Treponema pallidum.  This infection can cause life-long complications or even death if not identified and treated. Syphilis has four different stages that each present with different symptoms.  The time from infection to development of symptoms can range from 10-90 days. The average time between infection with syphilis and the start of the first symptom is 21 days.

What are the symptoms?

Primary syphilis is first noticed when an infected person develops a painless, red bump where the infection entered the body. It may then turn into a small ulcer with raised margins. The sores usually occur on the penis, around the vagina or on the anus. They may also occur inside the throat, vagina or rectum.  The sores heal on their own within a few weeks.

Secondary syphilis begins weeks or even a few months after the primary stage if the infection is left untreated. Symptoms may include a widespread rash, fever, headache, sore throat and muscle aches, weight loss, generalized swollen lymph nodes, or raised gray or white patches on warm, moist areas such as the mouth.

Latent syphilis usually has no symptoms and people may have it for years without knowing they are infected.

Late stage (or tertiary) syphilis develops in about 15% of the people who are untreated for the infection. Symptoms may include lack of muscle coordination, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness and dementia. Serious damage can be done to the heart, brain, eyes and other organs that can result in death.

How is it transmitted?

Syphilis is transmitted from person to person by direct contact with syphilis sores. It can be transmitted during vaginal, anal or oral sexual contact. Syphilis can be transmitted from the pregnant woman to her unborn baby with serious health consequences.

How is it diagnosed?

A blood test can show the presence of infection.

How is syphilis treated? 

Syphilis can be treated with antibiotics to prevent further damage from the infection. It will not repair the damage that has already been done.  Infected persons must abstain from sexual contact until the syphilis sore is completely healed. Partners must be notified so that they can be tested and treated if needed. Follow up testing is recommended to be sure that the treatment was successful.

How can syphilis be prevented? 

Syphilis transmission can be reduced by using latex condoms every time you have sex and avoiding sex when any sore is present in the genital, anal or oral region. Sores not covered by the condom can still transmit infection. Avoiding alcohol and drug use may decrease transmission of syphilis as such activities may lead to risky sexual behavior.

Where can I get more information?

www.cdc.gov/std/syphilis
www.uptodate.com/contents/syphilis-the-basics
www.ashasexualhealth.org/std-sti/syphilis.html