HomeGeneral MedicineSyphilis: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention

Syphilis: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention

Overview

Syphilis is an infectious illness caused by the pathogen Treponema pallidum. This sexually transmitted disease (STD) can spread via direct contact during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. The disease is highly contagious and can spread with sores of syphilis during direct sexual contact. Congenital syphilis can be transmitted from an infected mother to the fetus during pregnancy. After initial infection, the syphilis bacteria may remain inactive in your body for decades before getting active again. Sometimes, early syphilis can be cured with a single shot (injection) of penicillin.

Symptoms and Stages of Syphilis

This disease is categorized into four distinct stages, namely, primary, secondary, tertiary, and latent. The signs and symptoms of syphilis vary, depending on the stage of illness.

  • Primary syphilis: A small sore called a chancre is the first sign of syphilis.The sore may appear at the place where the bacteria entered the body. There may be one or many .Usually, the chancre develops about 3 weeks after exposure. Many people with syphilis don’t notice the chancre because it’s usually painless and may be hidden within the rectum or vagina. Chancre heals on its own within 3 – 6 weeks
  • Secondary syphilis: The disease spreads to the skin, lymph nodes, and mucous membranes. Reddish-pink, symmetrical, and non-itchy rashes may appear on the trunk and extremities of the body, including your soles and palms. It begins within six weeks to six months of the infection and may last up to three months. The other symptoms of secondary syphilis are fatigue, headache, pain in joints, fever, weight loss, and swelling in the lymph nodes. These symptoms might disappear within some weeks or come and go repeatedly for as long as a year.
  • Latent syphilis: The third and hidden stage of syphilis often involves an absence of symptoms noted in the primary and secondary stages. This stage may be observed for several years before the complications of tertiary syphilis are observed.
  • Tertiary syphilis: Said to be the last stage of infection, tertiary syphilis can occur several years after the initial infection. This is a life-threatening stage of the illness generally associated with adverse health outcomes.

Transmission and Progression of Disease

A bacterium called Treponema pallidum is the cause of syphilis. The infection is usually contracted due to transmission via intimate contact with infectious sores. The pathogen can enter through tissues such as the vagina, nose, or rectum. The transmission can also occur during a blood transfusion or via the placenta from an infected mother. If you are pregnant, you may pass the syphilis infection to your unborn baby. The bacteria is capable of penetrating intact mucous membranes or skin surfaces. Within a few hours of exposure, it can enter the blood and spread to other organs. The infection begins as a single, painless sore and gradually develops into macular and papular rashes.

Know the Causes of Syphilis

The infection is acquired during sexual contact, pregnancy, childbirth, or through contaminated blood products or sharing transfusion needles. The disease cannot spread by sharing clothes, utensils, swimming pools, toilet seats, bathtubs, or touching doorknobs.

When to See a Doctor?

Call your doctor if you or your partner experiences unusual sores or rashes in the groin region.

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Am I at Risk?

You are at a greater risk of acquiring syphilis if you practise  one of the following:

  • Unprotected intercourse.
  • Have multiple sexual partners.
  • Have an HIV infection or AIDS .
  • Intimacy with men who have sexual contact with men.

Complications

When left untreated, syphilis can have very serious complications.

  • The tertiary stage of the disease can cause damage to the joints, brain, heart, liver, eyes, nerves, and bones. Gummas can develop in these organs.
  • Syphilis can enhance the risk of HIV infection.
  • It can also affect  pregnancy.
  • Syphilis can cause loss of vision, hearing, pain, and temperature sensations.
  • It can cause sexual dysfunction in men.

Neurological problems

Syphilis can lead to a variety of problems with the nervous system, including:

  • Stroke
  • Hearing loss
  • Loss of pain and temperature sensations
  • Headache
  • Meningitis
  • Visual problems like blindness
  • Cardiovascular problems (bulging and swelling of aorta – major artery of the body – and of other blood vessels. It can also damage heart valves)
  • Dementia
  • Bladder incontinence
  • Sexual dysfunction in men
  • Congenital syphilis often increases the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth and the death of newborn within a short span after birth

How to Prevent Syphilis?

No vaccine is available for the prevention of syphilis. The best method to prevent the risk of syphilis infection is to practice safe sexual intercourse. Using condoms during sexual contact has proved effective in reducing the risk of all sexually transmitted infections, including syphilis. Avoid having multiple sex partners. If you notice the signs of infection, abstain from sexual contact. Avoid using alcohol and other drugs that can lead to unsafe sexual practices.

When should I Get Tested?

If you think you might have a syphilis infection or had sexual contact with someone who might have syphilis, get screened immediately. Screening is specifically recommended if you:

  • Are pregnant.
  • Had unprotected sexual contact without a condom.
  • Had sexual contact with multiple individuals (including males having sex with males).
  • Have an HIV infection.

Your doctor will conduct a physical examination and take samples from the sore and blood for an accurate diagnosis.

Can Syphilis be Treated?

The treatment of syphilis is possible using the right antibiotics at an early stage of the illness. Syphilis is easy to cure when diagnosed and treated in its early stages. Penicillin, an antibiotic medicine, is the preferred treatment at all stages as it can kill the organism that causes syphilis. For those allergic to penicillin, the doctor may recommend another antibiotic or recommend penicillin desensitization.

The treatment cannot reverse the damage that has occurred already. You are still at risk of being reinfected if you are in contact with an infected partner.

Conclusion

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease of public concern. Healthcare professionals recommend pregnant women get screened for syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases. Notifying your partner about the syphilis diagnosis can help prevent the spread of infection. Only treatment can stop the infection from spreading. It is recommended that recent sexual partners get tested and receive preventive treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  1. I have painless sores in my genital area. Is it syphilis?

The disease cannot be confirmed by symptoms alone. It is advised to seek the help of medical professionals and get tested for syphilis.

  1. I am pregnant. Is my baby at risk of syphilis ?

Pregnant women are at risk of transmitting the infection to the newborn. It is recommended to get screened and receive treatment. If left untreated, syphilis can lead to complications such as miscarriage, premature birth, and the death of a newborn. The baby may also have deformities due to congenital infection.

  1. I am diagnosed with syphilis. What should I do now?

Do not get involved with multiple partners. Abstain from unsafe sexual activity. Notify your partner about the diagnosis. Seek treatment regularly to prevent the complications of the disease. Know your risk and follow preventive measures.

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