Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the bacteria, Treponema pallidum. Though difficult to diagnose, syphilis occurs in stages and can be cured when one seeks proper medical care.
WHAT IS IT?
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that has often been referred to as the “great imitator.” As the name implies, the signs and symptoms are often hard to distinguish from other infections and diseases.
HOW IS IT TRANSMITTED?
Syphilis is spread from person to person through direct contact with a syphilis sore. These sores usually occur around the external genital area, vagina, anus or in the rectum. Sores can also occur on the lips and mouth in some cases. Transmission of syphilis occurs through unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex. Transmission can also occur from an infected pregnant woman to her fetus.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
The symptoms of syphilis occur in three stages; primary, secondary and late syphilis.
The primary stage of syphilis is characterized by a single sore (chancre) occurring where syphilis entered the body. The time from infection until the appearance of a sore is about three weeks (21 days on average). The chancre may appear round, firm to the touch and painless, and can last 3-6 weeks until it heals on its own. If syphilis is not treated at this point it will progress to the secondary stage.
The secondary stage is characterized by the appearance of a rash on one or more parts of the body. The rash may appear as the chancre begins to go away, or could take weeks to develop. For most people the rash does not itch and can appear on both the palms of hands and bottoms of feet. However, the rash could also appear on other parts of the body and even be barely visible. Like the chancre in the primary stage the rash will go away by itself, even without treatment. Other symptoms during the secondary stage may be fever, tiredness, weight loss, patchy hair loss, sore throat, headaches, swollen lymph nodes, or muscle aches. A person who has syphilis can easily transmit the infection to a partner during the primary or secondary stages. If someone has been in contact with someone who may be in the secondary stage, they should be tested for syphilis.
Late syphilis appears when the secondary stage subsides. In this stage, the person still has syphilis though they may not be experiencing signs or symptoms. Instead, the infection works inside the body damaging internal organs such as the brain, eyes, liver, nerves, heart, blood vessels, bones, and joints. It could take as many as 10-20 years for a person to begin to feel the effects of syphilis in the late stage. These late stage symptoms in later years can be numbness, loss of muscle control, dementia and even death.
HOW IS IT TREATED?
Because syphilis is a bacterial infection, it can be cured with antibiotics. For people who have been infected for less than a year, syphilis can be cured with a single dose of penicillin. It may take a higher dose to treat those who have been infected for over a year. Should someone be allergic to penicillin, syphilis can be cured with other types of antibiotics. It is important to note that treatment will not repair damage already done to the body, though it will prevent further damage. Those persons undergoing treatment for syphilis should abstain from sexual activity until treatment is complete and sores are completely healed. Also, those diagnosed with syphilis must notify all partners so that they can be tested and treated if necessary.
HOW CAN I PROTECT MYSELF FROM IT?
o Abstain from sexual activity or have only one uninfected partner
o Use a latex male or female condom correctly, with every act of sexual intercourse, but know that condoms do not always protect from syphilis because the sores can be in the surrounding genital areas or on the mouth or lips
o COMMUNICATE with all potential partners about their sexual history and if they have ever been tested for sexually transmitted infections