Syphilis

What is Syphilis?
Syphilis is a curable sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. Syphilis is often called the "Great Imitator" because so many of the signs and symptoms are similar to those of other diseases.

The incidence of primary and secondary syphilis is high in women age 20-24 years and men age 35-39 years (CDC). In Chester County, there were 17 cases of primary, secondary and early latent Syphilis in 2011.

How do you get it?
Syphilis is passed from person to person through direct contact with a syphilis sore. Sores occur mainly on the external genitals, vagina, anus, or in the rectum. Sores also can occur on the lips and in the mouth. Pregnant women with the disease can pass it to their babies.

Syphilis cannot be spread through contact with toilet seats, doorknobs, swimming pools, hot tubs, bathtubs, shared clothing, or eating utensils.

What are the symptoms?
Primary Stage - The primary stage is usually marked by the appearance of a single sore (called a chancre), but there may be multiple sores. The time between infection with syphilis and the start of the first symptom averages about 21 days. The chancre is usually firm, round, small, and painless. It appears at the spot where syphilis entered the body. The chancre lasts 3-6 weeks, and heals on its own, but if treatment is not given, the infection progresses to the secondary stage.

Secondary Stage - Skin rash and lesions occur during the secondary stage. This stage typically starts with the development of a rash on one or more areas of the body. The rash usually does not cause itching. Rashes associated with secondary syphilis can appear as the chancre is healing or several weeks after the chancre has healed. The characteristic rash of secondary syphilis may appear as rough, red, or reddish brown spots both on the palms of the hands and the bottoms of the feet. However, rashes with a different appearance may occur on other parts of the body, sometimes resembling rashes caused by other diseases. Sometimes these rashes are so faint that they go unnoticed. Other symptoms may include fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and fatigue. The symptoms of secondary syphilis will resolve with or without treatment, but without treatment, the infection will progress to the latent and possibly late stages of disease.

Late and Latent Stages - The latent stage of syphilis begins when primary and secondary symptoms disappear. Without treatment, the infected person will continue to have syphilis even though there are no signs or symptoms. This latent stage can last for years. The late stages of syphilis can develop in about 15% of people who have not been treated, and can appear 10–20 years after infection was first acquired. In the late stages of syphilis, the disease may subsequently damage the internal organs, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints. Symptoms of the late stage of syphilis include difficulty coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness, and dementia. This damage may lead to death.

How does syphilis affect a pregnant woman and her baby?
Depending on how long a pregnant woman has been infected, she may have a high risk of having a stillbirth or of giving birth to a baby who dies shortly after birth. An infected baby may be born without signs or symptoms of disease. However, if not treated immediately, the baby may develop serious problems within a few weeks. Untreated babies may become developmentally delayed, have seizures, or die.

How is it diagnosed?
Syphilis can be identified by examining a chancre using a special microscope. A blood test can also determine infection. Every pregnant woman should have a blood test for Syphilis.

What is the treatment?
Syphilis is easy to cure in the early stages. A single dose of penicillin will cure a person who has had syphilis for less than a year. Additional doses are needed to treat someone who has had syphilis longer than a year. For people who are allergic to penicillin, other antibiotics are available. There are no home remedies or over-the-counter drugs that will cure syphilis. Treatment will kill the syphilis bacterium and prevent further damage, but it will not repair damage already done.

Because effective treatment is available, it is important that persons be screened for syphilis on an on-going basis if their sexual behaviors put them at risk for STDs.

Persons who receive syphilis treatment must abstain from sexual contact with new partners until the syphilis sores are completely healed. Persons with syphilis must notify their sex partners so that they also can be tested and receive treatment if necessary.

How can it be prevented?
The safest and surest way to avoid any sexually transmitted disease is to abstain from sex, or to be in a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who is not infected.

Genital ulcer diseases, like syphilis, can occur in both male and female genital areas that are covered or protected by a latex condom, as well as in areas that are not covered. 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.

Any genital symptoms such as discharge or burning during urination or unusual sore or rash should be a signal to stop having sex and to see a doctor immediately. If a person has been diagnosed and treated for an STD, he or she should notify all recent sex partners so they can see a health care provider and be treated. This will reduce the risk that the sex partners will become re-infected. The person and all sex partners must avoid sex until treatment is complete and sex partners no longer have symptoms.

GET TESTED - visit our STD clinic page.