What is Syphilis?

Syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease (STD), is caused by a bacterium called Treponema pallidum. It often mimics the signs and symptoms of other diseases, so it has sometimes been called “the great imitator.”

Syphilis is passed from person to person through contact with a syphilis sore. Sores can occur in many places on the body, including the lips, mouth, vagina, anus and rectum. It is passed more often during vaginal, anal, or oral sex.

It is important to note that this STD is not spread through contact with surfaces like toilet seats, hot tubs, pools, doorknobs or sharing eating utensils.

Pregnant women with the disease can pass it to their babies. Because of this, all pregnant women should be tested for syphilis.

Correct use of latex condoms can reduce the risk of syphilis. However, genital ulcer diseases like syphilis can still occur in genital areas that are protected by a latex condom, as well as in areas that are not covered.

The best way to avoid syphilis is to abstain from sexual contact or be in a long-term relationship with someone who has been tested for syphilis and is uninfected.

If you display any sores, rashes or unusual discharge, especially in the groin area, see your health provider immediately.

Symptoms of syphilis

Some people with syphilis do not display any symptoms for years. However, they are still at risk for complications if they remain untreated. Syphilis progresses through several stages.

Primary stage

During the primary stage of syphilis, a single sore or several sores may appear. The usual time between infection and display of the first symptom is between 10 and 90 days.

The sore is usually small, firm, round, and painless, and appears in the area that syphilis entered the body.

The sore usually lasts three to six weeks, and then heals on its own. However, without the proper treatment, syphilis progresses to the secondary stage.

Secondary stage

During the secondary stage of syphilis, a skin rash and mucous membrane lesions may appear.
The rash may affect one or more areas of the body, but does not cause itching.

The rashes that occur in the secondary stage of syphilis may appear as rough, red (or reddish brown) spots on the hands and the bottom of the feet.

Rashes can also appear in other areas of the body, and mimic rashes caused by other diseases. The rashes may even be so slight that they go unnoticed.

Other symptoms of secondary syphilis include weight loss, headaches, fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, muscle aches, and fatigue.

These symptoms will eventually resolve with or without treatment. However, without any treatment, the infection will continue to progress to the next stage.

Latent and late stages

After the symptoms of the first and second stages of syphilis infection are gone, the latent (hidden) stage of syphilis begins.

If the infect person is not treated, syphilis will remain in the body, even if there are no further signs or symptoms. The latent stage can go on for years.

The late stages of syphilis develop in approximately 15 percent of infected people who have not been treated. At this stage, the disease can progress to damage internal organs such as the nerves, eyes, heart, bones and joints.

Symptoms of late stage syphilis include numbness, gradual blindness, dementia and difficulty coordinating muscle movement. Such damage can eventually lead to death.

Syphilis diagnosis

If you have any symptoms of syphilis, see your health provider.

Syphilis can be diagnosed in several ways, including inspection of the infectious sore with a special microscope. A blood test can also determine if someone is infected with syphilis.

Because untreated syphilis can infect and even kill an unborn baby, all pregnant women should be tested for syphilis.

Syphilis treatment

In its early stage, syphilis is easy to cure with an injection of penicillin. If the patient has had syphilis for more than a year, additional doses are needed. Other antibiotics can be used for those who are allergic to penicillin.

This treatment will kill the syphilis bacterium, but it does not repair damage already done.

Those who have received treatment for syphilis should abstain from any sexual contact until the syphilis sores are healed. All sexual partners should be notified so that they can be tested as well.