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Syphilis

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Syphilis is an STD that can cause long-term complications if not treated correctly.

Syphilis

SYPHILIS


What is syphilis?

Syphilis is an STD that can cause long-term complications if not treated correctly. Symptoms in adults are divided into stages. These stages are primary, secondary, latent, and late syphilis.

How is syphilis spread?

You can get syphilis by direct contact with a syphilis sore during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Sores can be found on the penis, vagina, anus, in the rectum, or on the lips and in the mouth. Syphilis can also be spread from an infected mother to her unborn baby.

 

What does syphilis look like?

Syphilis has been called ‘the great imitator’ because it has so many possible symptoms, many of which look like symptoms from other diseases. The painless syphilis sore that you would get after you are first infected can be confused for an ingrown hair, zipper cut, or other seemingly harmless bump. The non-itchy body rash that develops during the second stage of syphilis can show up on the palms of your hands and soles of your feet, all over your body, or in just a few places. Syphilis can also affect the eye and can lead to permanent blindness. This is called ocular syphilis. You could also be infected with syphilis and have very mild symptoms or none at all.

 

How can I reduce my risk of getting syphilis?

The only way to avoid STDs is to not have vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
If you are sexually active, you can do the following things to lower your chances of getting syphilis:
Being in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and has negative STD test results;
Using latex condoms the right way every time you have sex. Condoms prevent transmission of syphilis by preventing contact with a sore. Sometimes sores occur in areas not covered by a condom. Contact with these sores can still transmit syphilis.

 

Am I at risk for syphilis?

Any sexually active person can get syphilis through unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Have an honest and open talk with your health care provider and ask whether you should be tested for syphilis or other STDs. You should get tested regularly for syphilis if you are pregnant, are a man who has sex with men, have HIV infection, and/or have partner(s) who have tested positive for syphilis.

 

I’m pregnant. How does syphilis affect my baby?

If you are pregnant and have syphilis, you can give the infection to your unborn baby. Having syphilis can lead to a low birth weight baby. It can also make it more likely you will deliver your baby too early or stillborn (a baby born dead). To protect your baby, you should be tested for syphilis during your pregnancy and at delivery and receive immediate treatment if you test positive.

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 can have health problems such as cataracts, deafness, or seizures, and can die.

 

How will my doctor know if I have syphilis?

Most of the time, a blood test can be used to test for syphilis. Some health care providers will diagnose syphilis by testing fluid from a syphilis sore.

 

How do I know if I have syphilis?

Symptoms of syphilis in adults can be divided into stages:

Stages of Syphilis

Primary stage

During the primary stage, a sore ( chancre) that is usually painless develops at the site where the bacteria entered the body. This commonly occurs within 3 weeks of exposure but can range from 10 to 90 days. A person is highly contagious during the primary stage.

  • In men, a chancre often appears in the genital area, usually (but not always) on the penis. These sores are often painless.
  • In women, chancres can develop on the outer genitals or on the inner part of the vagina. A chancre may go unnoticed if it occurs inside the vagina or at the opening to the uterus (cervix), because the sores are usually painless and are not easily visible.
  • Swelling of the lymph nodes may occur near the area of the chancre.
  • A chancre may also occur in an area of the body other than the genitals.
  • The chancre lasts for 3 to 6 weeks, heals without treatment, and may leave a thin scar. But even though the chancre has healed, syphilis is still present and a person can still pass the infection to others.

During the first (primary) stage of syphilis, you may notice a single sore, but there may be multiple sores. Primary syphilis occurs 10-90 days after contact with an infected individual. It manifests mainly on the glans penis in males and on the vulva or cervix in females. Ten percent of syphilitic lesions are found on the anus, fingers, oropharynx, tongue, nipples, or other extragenital sites. Regional nontender lymphadenopathy follows invasion. The sore is the location where syphilis entered your body. The sore is usually firm, round, and painless. Because the sore is painless, it can easily go unnoticed. The sore lasts 3 to 8 weeks and heals regardless of whether or not you receive treatment. Even though the sore goes away, you must still receive treatment so your infection does not move to the secondary stage.

Secondary stage

Secondary syphilis is characterized by a rash that appears from 2 to 8 weeks after the chancre develops and sometimes before it heals. Other symptoms may also occur, which means that the infection has spread throughout the body. A person is highly contagious during the secondary stage.

A rash often develops over the body and commonly includes the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet.

  • The rash usually consists of a reddish brown, small, solid, flat or raised skin sore or sores that are less than 2 cm (0.8 in.) across. The rash may look like other more common skin problems.
  • Small, open sores may be present on mucous membranes. The sores may contain pus, or moist sores that look like warts may be present (condyloma lata).
  • In dark-skinned people the sores may be a lighter color than the surrounding skin.

The skin rash usually heals without scarring within 2 months. After healing, skin discoloration may develop. But even though the skin rash has healed, syphilis is still present and a person can still pass the infection to others.

When syphilis has spread throughout the body, the person may have:

  • A fever of usually less than 101°F (38°C).
  • A sore throat.
  • A vague feeling of weakness or discomfort throughout the body.
  • Weight loss.
  • Patchy hair loss, especially in the eyebrows, eyelashes, and scalp hair.
  • Swelling of the lymph nodes.
  • Nervous system symptoms of secondary syphilis, which can include neck stiffness, headaches, irritability, paralysis, unequal reflexes, and irregular pupils.

During the secondary stage, you may have skin rashes and/or sores in your mouth, vagina, or anus (also called mucous membrane lesions). This stage usually starts with a rash on one or more areas of your body. The rash can show up when your primary sore is healing or several weeks after the sore has healed. The rash can look like rough, red, or reddish brown spots on the palms of your hands and/or the bottoms of your feet. The rash usually won’t itch and it is sometimes so faint that you won’t notice it. Other symptoms you may have can include fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and fatigue (feeling very tired). The symptoms from this stage will go away whether or not you receive treatment. Without the right treatment, your infection will move to the latent and possibly late stages of syphilis.

Latent (hidden) stage

If untreated, an infected person will progress to the latent (hidden) stage of syphilis. After the secondary-stage rash goes away, the person will not have any symptoms for a time (latent period). The latent period may be as brief as 1 year or range from 5 to 20 years.

Often during this stage an accurate diagnosis can only be made through blood testing, the person's history, or the birth of a child with congenital syphilis.

A person is contagious during the early part of the latent stage and may be contagious during the latent period when no symptoms are present.

Relapses of secondary syphilis

About 20 to 30 out of 100 people with syphilis have a relapse of the secondary stage of syphilis during the latent stage.footnote1 A relapse means the person had passed through the second stage, had no symptoms, then began to experience secondary-stage symptoms again. Relapses can occur several times.

When relapses no longer occur, a person is not contagious through contact. But a woman in the latent stage of syphilis may still pass the disease to her developing baby and may have a miscarriage, a stillbirth, or give birth to a baby infected with congenital syphilis.

Tertiary (late) stage

This is the most destructive stage of syphilis. If untreated, the tertiary stage may begin as early as 1 year after infection or at any time during a person's lifetime. A person may never experience this stage of the illness.

The symptoms of tertiary (late) syphilis depend on the complications that occur. Complications of this stage include:

  • Gummata, which are large sores inside the body or on the skin.
  • Cardiovascular syphilis, which affects the heart and blood vessels.
  • Neurosyphilis, which affects the nervous system.

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Can syphilis be cured?

Yes, syphilis can be cured with the right antibiotics from your health care provider. However, treatment will not undo any damage that the infection has already done.

 

I’ve been treated. Can I get syphilis again?

Having syphilis once does not protect you from getting it again. Even after you’ve been successfully treated, you can still be re-infected. Only laboratory tests can confirm whether you have syphilis. Follow-up testing by your health care provider is recommended to make sure that your treatment was successful.

Because syphilis sores can be hidden in the vagina, anus, under the foreskin of the penis, or in the mouth, it may not be obvious that a sex partner has syphilis. Unless you know that your sex partner(s) has been tested and treated, you may be at risk of getting syphilis again from an untreated sex partner.  YOU AND YOUR SEX PARTNERS NEED TO GET TESTED.

 


 

References

  1. Hook EW (2016). Syphilis. In L Goldman, A Shafer, eds., Goldman-Cecil Medicine, 25th ed., vol. 2, pp. 2013–2020. Philadelphia: Saunders.

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Syphilis is an STD that can cause long-term complications if not treated correctly. Symptoms in adults are divided into stages. These stages are primary, secondary, latent, and late syphilis.