Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacteria Treponoma pallidum. It is often called the “Great Imitator” because syphilis symptoms resemble those of other common diseases. It has also been given the names “Miss. Siff” and “The Pox”. Almost 36 000 cases of syphilis are reported in the United States each year but many more go unreported. The majority of syphilis sufferers are male, accounting for about 60% of all cases. If caught early on in a syphilis test, syphilis can be easily treated. However, if left untreated, syphilis can cause heart problems, psychological disorders, blindness, and death. Syphilis also increases the risk of contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, by up to five fold.

Type of Infection: Bacterial

Modes of Transmission: Syphilis is almost always transmitted through sexual contact with an infected person. The syphilis bacteria can easily spread from the ulcers on an infected person to the mucous linings of the mouth, genitals, and anus of an uninfected sexual partner. Though unlikely, it is possible to contract the infection by coming into contact with the broken skin of an infected person. Syphilis can also be passed from an infected mother to her unborn child.

Symptoms: Syphilis symptoms occur in stages. Primary syphilis results in painless sores called “chancres.” These usually appear on the genitals, but they can also appear on the lips, tongue, and other body parts. These chancres generally disappear within a few weeks, but if left untreated, the disease can progress to chronic stages. Secondary syphilis begins with the syphilis rash. This is an infectious brown skin rash that typically occurs on the bottom of the feet and the palms of the hand. Fever, sore throat, swollen glands, and hair loss can also be experienced. The third stage of syphilis can last for many years, and you may suffer from joint and bone damage, increasing blindness, numbness in the extremities, or difficulty in coordinating movements.

Treatment: If caught early, syphilis is easily treatable. A single dose of an intramuscular penicillin injection can cure those infected within a year. 24 hours after this injection, you are no longer infectious. Some people don’t respond to these penicillin injections, or cannot receive them due to allergies. Other antibiotics are used in these cases. Frequent blood tests over a two year period are required to ensure that the syphilis bacteria has left your system. Treatment will not reverse any damage suffered as a result of the syphilis infection.

Complications: If left untreated, syphilis can cause serious damage to the heart, brain, eyes, ears. It can cause permanent blindness and dementia, and can even result in death. The chancres caused by syphilis can leave you at an increased risk of contracting HIV. These open sores provide easy entry points for the HIV virus, which, if contracted, will lead to AIDS.

Consequences in Infants: Syphilis is easily communicable to your unborn child. This is called congenital syphilis. 40% to 70% of women with syphilis will infect their child and 25% to 50% of these children will be miscarried or stillborn. Congenital syphilis is extremely dangerous, causing deformities, seizures, blindness, and damage to the brain, bones, teeth, and ears.

Risk Factors: You are especially at risk if you do not know the health status of your sexual partners. Those who have sex with multiple partners are also at risk. Health care workers may be at risk of contracting the disease, due to increased contact with those infected with the disease. Drug users who share needles or pipes are also at risk as are those working and living in a corrections facility.

Prevention: To prevent being infected with syphilis, avoid contact with open sores. Use condoms during sex in order to reduce your risk of contracting the syphilis bacteria. Condoms will not completely safeguard you from getting syphilis, as sores can occur on other parts of the body. Use a dental dam during oral sex. Abstinence is the best method to prevent infection. Testing is the only way to prevent syphilis from progressing to its later stages. If you think you may have syphilis, or if you see any of its symptoms, get tested. Routine testing for syphilis is performed on all pregnant mothers to prevent passing the disease to fetuses and newborns. Health care workers should ensure appropriate precautions are taken when dealing with the syphilis bacteria.

Research: New research is being conducted into creating a vaccine for syphilis. This vaccine will help the body’s immune system fight the disease. A safe, one-dose pill is also being developed for those allergic or immune to penicillin. New tests for detecting the disease are being created. These utilize saliva and urine samples, instead of blood samples, to detect the syphilis bacteria.

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