Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacteria treponema pallidum. Syphilis has been around for centuries and is often referred to as the Great Imitator, because it causes symptoms that are associated with a number of other diseases and health conditions. There is now effective treatment available for syphilis infections, which can help to prevent the uncomfortable and painful symptoms of the disease. However, if left untreated syphilis can progress, causing serious and potentially life-threatening health complications.
How Do You Get Syphilis?
Syphilis is contracted by coming into direct contact with the sores of an infected person. This generally occurs during sexual activity, including:
- vaginal intercourse
- anal intercourse
- oral intercourse
Pregnant women who are infected with the syphilis bacteria can also pass the disease on to their child during pregnancy. This is known as congenital syphilis.
Who’s At Risk for Syphilis?
Every year, more than 15,000 men and women throughout the United Kingdom contract the syphilis disease. Though anyone can get syphilis, your risk of contracting the disease increases if you:
- engage in unprotected sexual activity
- have multiple sex partners
- are a female between the ages of 20 and 24
- are a male between the ages of 35 and 39
- engage in male to male sexual intercourse
What are the Symptoms of Syphilis?
Syphilis symptoms can be difficult to diagnose because they often resemble symptoms of other diseases, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea. Additionally, syphilis symptoms are often mild in the initial stages of the disease, which means that many men and women do not even realize that they are infected. Symptoms of syphilis occur in three stages:
- Primary Syphilis: During the primary syphilis stage, men and women will notice the appearance of a small, red sore (called a chancre) on their bodies. This chancre generally appears at the site of infection (usually the genitals) within ten and 90 days of infection. This chancre will disappear on its own, leaving a small scar on the skin. If left untreated, symptoms will progress to the secondary syphilis stage.
- Secondary Syphilis: Secondary syphilis symptoms generally appear within two and ten weeks of the primary stage. During this stage, the syphilis bacteria have entered the bloodstream and begin to travel throughout the body, causing numerous symptoms. The main symptom of secondary syphilis is the appearance of a reddish-brown rash on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. Additional symptoms include: fever, swollen lymph nodes, sore throat, weight loss, muscle and joint pain, and the appearance of lesions all over the body. Secondary syphilis symptoms will eventually disappear. However, without treatment, the syphilis infection will continue to progress.
- Tertiary Syphilis: During the third stage of infection, the syphilis bacteria begin to affect the vital organs of the body, including the eyes, liver, kidneys, heart, and brain. Symptoms including memory loss, vision problems, and loss of muscle control may occur. A small percentage of those diagnosed with tertiary syphilis will experience life-threatening complications.
Complications of Syphilis
If treated promptly, syphilis can be cured without causing any serious health complications. However, if left untreated, syphilis can become a very dangerous illness. The syphilis bacteria will begin to attack all areas of the body, including the joints and muscles, heart and lungs, spinal cord and brain. People with long-term syphilis are at risk for:
- muscle control problems
Because of the sores associated with syphilis, those infected with the disease are also at increased risk for contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Pregnant women infected with syphilis are also at increased risk for miscarriage, preterm labor, and stillbirth.
Syphilis testing is essential in order to ensure that proper treatment for the disease is taken. Diagnosis is typically based on a blood test, which looks for the presence of syphilis antibodies in the blood. Occasionally, health care provider examine samples of the initial syphilis chancres using a dark-field microscope. This type of microscope is specifically designed to highlight the syphilis bacteria. All pregnant women are encouraged to be tested for syphilis early in pregnancy.
Treatment for Syphilis
When caught in its early stages, syphilis is a very easy disease to treat. Those experiencing symptoms of primary and secondary syphilis infection generally only need a single intramuscular shot of penicillin to be completely cured. If you have had the disease for a long time (more than one year) you may require multiple penicillin injections. Some patients with severe symptoms need to be hospitalized so that they can receive penicillin daily, through an intravenous line. Though syphilis treatment is effective at getting rid of the syphilis bacteria, it can not reverse damage already done to your body by the disease.
Chat with other women with common symptoms of Syphilis, such as sore throats, in our STD forum.