Syphilis is a highly contagious disease spread primarily by sexual activity, including oral and anal sex. Occasionally, the disease can be passed to another person through prolonged kissing or close bodily contact. Although this disease is spread from sores, the vast majority of those sores go unrecognized. The infected person is often unaware of the disease and unknowingly passes it on to his or her sexual partner. Pregnant women with the disease can spread it to their baby. This disease, called congenital syphilis, can cause abnormalities or even death to the child. Syphilis is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum.
Signs and symptoms of Syphilis
- Early or primary syphilis. People with primary syphilis will develop one or more sores. The sores are usually small painless ulcers. They occur on the genitals or in or around the mouth somewhere between 10-90 days (average three weeks) after exposure. Even without treatment they heal without a scar within six weeks.
- The secondary stage may last one to three months and begins within six weeks to six months after exposure. People with secondary syphilis experience a rosy rash typically on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. However, rashes with a different appearance may occur on other parts of the body, sometimes resembling rashes caused by other diseases. They may also experience moist warts in the groin, white patches on the inside of the mouth, swollen lymph glands, fever, and weight loss. Like primary syphilis, secondary syphilis will resolve without treatment.
- Latent syphilis. This is where the infection lies dormant (inactive) without causing symptoms.
- Tertiary syphilis. In tertiary syphilis there are gummas (soft non-cancerous growths), neurological, or heart symptoms.If the infection isn’t treated, it may then progress to a stage characterized by severe problems with the heart, brain, and nerves that can result in paralysis, blindness, dementia, deafness, impotence, and even death if it’s not treated. Syphilis has been known as “the great imitator” as it may cause symptoms similar to many other diseases.
Prevention of Syphilis
There is no vaccine effective for prevention. Condom use reduces the likelihood of transmission during sex, but does not completely eliminate the risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states, “Correct and consistent use of latex condoms can reduce the risk of syphilis only when the infected area or site of potential exposure is protected. However, a syphilis sore outside of the area covered by a latex condom can still allow transmission, so caution should be exercised even when using a condom.”
Diagnosis is by venereal disease research laboratory (VDRL) and rapid plasma reagin (RPR) tests.Confirmation by treponemal pallidum particle agglutination(TPHA) or fluorescent treponemal antibody absorption test (FTA-Abs). Treponemal antibody tests usually become positive two to five weeks after the initial infection.Neurosyphilis is diagnosed by finding high numbers of leukocytes (predominately lymphocytes) and high protein levels in the cerebrospinal fluid in the setting of a known syphilis infection.
Treatment for Syphilis
Syphilis can be effectively treated with antibiotics. During treatment people may develop fever, headache, and muscle pains, a reaction known as Jarisch-Herxheimer.
People who are being treated for syphilis must abstain from sexual contact until the infection is completely gone. Sexual partners of people with syphilis should be tested and, if necessary, treated.
If syphilis is left untreated, it can cause serious and permanent problems such as dementia, blindness, or death.