What is syphilis?
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STD) with many different manifestations and potentially serious complications. It is caused by a bacteria called “Treponema pallidum”.
In the past, before the advent of antibiotics, syphilis was considered a dangerous illness with long-term, devastating consequences which could even affect the brain and nerves.
Thankfully, with the development of penicillin antibiotics and lab tests to detect syphilis infection early, modern medicine is now well equipped to diagnose, treat and cure syphilis well before complications can set in.
Syphilis – Still a Real and Relevant Infection Today
As of recent years though, there has been a rise in syphilis cases amongst both heterosexuals as well as homosexual couples, as reported by the Centers for Diseases Control (CDC), a reminder that syphilis remains a very real infection concern that any sexually active individual should be aware of.
Syphilis is transmitted by direct contact with a syphilis sore, which is a painless ulcer known as a “chancre”. These chancres can occur both in the mouth/oral cavity or in the genital region and the rectum. Sexual contact in the form or oral, vaginal or anal intercourse can all spread syphilis. If a pregnant mother has syphilis, she can also transmit it to her unborn child.
What are the symptoms and different stages of syphilis?
Reading about syphilis can be confusing because it is an infection with different stages and a multitude of varied symptoms.
But to simplify things, there are three stages of syphilis: primary, secondary and tertiary.
Primary Syphilis Symptoms
(usually begins a few weeks up to 3 months from infection)
a.) Syphilis Symptoms: Chancres
- Painless, round ulcer
- usually single – occurring at the site where the infection enters the body which is usually in the genital, anal or oral region
- lasts between 3 – 8 weeks
Note that chancres will heal by themselves and disappearance of the chancre does not mean the infection is gone!
(months or more after initial infection)
b.) Syphilis Symptoms: Rashes
- Syphilis is known in the medical world as “the Great Mimicker” – so keep in mind that the rash it causes may look very different from what you see in photos!
- The classic rash is a brownish rash over the palms and soles but syphilis can also cause a rash anywhere over the body
- May range from very faint rashes to obvious reddish patches
- Generally not itchy
- Can occur anytime from when the initial chancre is healing to weeks after
- May come and go
c.) Snail track ulcers
- Raw reddish ulcers in the mouth and genital region
d.) Condylomata Lata
- Raised, greyish patches that occur in moist regions of the body like the groin, armpits
e.) Nonspecific symptoms
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- A sore throat
(occurs decades after initial infection)
- Tertiary syphilis is now fairly rare as most cases are detected and treated before they progress to this. Symptoms depend on the organs affected by syphilis
Someone with syphilis can also feel entirely well and not have any symptoms- this is known as latent syphilis. If the infection was acquired within the last year, it is considered early latent syphilis, but if it occurred more than a year ago, then it is considered late latent syphilis.
Syphilis can affect the eyes and nerves during any stage of infection. This can result in a variety of symptoms including vision problems, abnormal body movements and even early dementia or memory problems.
What Does a Syphilis Test Do
Who should test for syphilis and what tests are done to diagnose syphilis?
You should test for syphilis…
- If you have had sexual contact with someone with known syphilis
- If you have symptoms suspicious for syphilis
- As part of your regular STD screening if you have an active sex life and have had partners whose infection status you are unsure of
Diagnosis of a syphilis infection is done through a blood test which looks for antibodies to syphilis. Syphilis blood tests can be a little complex and your doctor will be able to explain more to you about the interpretation of results and what to look out for.
What Treatment is Available for Syphilis?
Syphilis infections are treated with penicillin which is administered as an injection. The dosage or number of injections required depends on the stage of the infection.
In unfortunate cases where the infection fails to clear up with initial treatment (which is known as treatment failure), then additional antibiotics may be required for a longer duration of time.
In order to determine if treatment is successful, as well as to monitor for recurrence of the syphilis infection, regular blood tests at intervals of a few months may be required. Until one is clear of syphilis, it is best to abstain from the sexual activity so as to minimise the risk of transmitting the infection to others.
Syphilis remains a problem in the present day, but while it is a potentially serious infection, the good news is that with early diagnosis, the frightening complications that occur with untreated syphilis can very easily be prevented.