Womens Health

Sexually Transmitted Disease: Syphilis

What is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease that is caused by a bacterium known as Treponema Pallidum. Like other sexually transmitted diseases, syphilis is contracted through direct contact with an infected individual. If left untreated, syphilis can lead to serious health complications that can affect major organs such as the heart, lungs, spinal cord and brain. Fortunately, syphilis can be treated in its early stages, making diagnosis of the STD crucial.

How Is Syphilis Transmitted?

Syphilis has been on the rise in recent years. In the United States, over 30 000 cases were reported in 2002, with the majority of infected patients ranging between 20 to 39 years of age.

Like any STD, the best method to prevent syphilis is abstinence, but using protection such as a condom during intercourse will reduce the risk of transmission. Syphilis can be transmitted through vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, and oral intercourse, and individuals with multiple sexual partners are at increased risk of contacting syphilis. Women between the ages of 20 to 24 and men between the ages of 35 to 39 are also at increased risk.

Syphilis can sometimes be transmitted by sharing infected needles, or coming in contact with sores on the skin. Pregnant mothers can also transmit syphilis to their newborns.

Symptoms of Syphilis

Syphilis is characterized by several stages that determine the STD symptoms that are experienced by an infected individual.

Syphilis symptoms will usually appear between a few weeks to a couple of months after infection. This is considered the primary stage of syphilis, and is characterized by the appearance of painless sores or ulcers (also known as chancres) in the area where the bacteria has initially entered such as the genitals, mouth, anus, or throat.

It is important to realize that these syphilis symptoms may go away without treatment. However, the infection will remain and progress into the secondary stage of syphilis. During this phase, the characteristic syphilis rash will appear on areas of the body such as the soles of the feet and palms of the hands, and will usually be brown in appearance. The syphilis rash is contagious, and may also be accompanied by other symptoms of syphilis such as hair loss, fever, swollen glands, and muscle and joint pain.

The third or tertiary stage of syphilis can last for years and begins once the symptoms of secondary syphilis disappear. The symptoms of syphilis in this phase include numbness, paralysis, difficult muscle coordination, and blindness. This can lead to more serious complications and in some cases can even be fatal.

Complications of Syphilis

One of the biggest concerns associated with the contraction of syphilis is the increased susceptibility to HIV/AIDS transmission in infected individuals. The sores and ulcers of the primary stage of syphilis symptoms make an infected individual three to five times more likely to contract HIV, and individuals who are infected by both STDs may transmit them more easily to their partners.

If left untreated, syphilis can lead to the following serious complications:


  • blindness, deafness, and paralysis
  • seizures, dementia, and difficulty controlling muscles
  • increased risk of miscarriage, preterm labor, and stillbirth
  • long-term damage to vital organs such as the heart, liver, brain, lungs, and bones
  • death

Syphilis Treatment and Diagnosis

A blood test is the most common STD testing method used to diagnose syphilis, since many of the visible symptoms of syphilis are common to other medical conditions. The syphilis STD test can be done at local STD testing centers, or as advised by a health care professional. In some cases, material derived from a syphilis sore or chancre can be examined under a microscope for the presence of bacteria.

Syphilis treatment will not reverse any damage that has already been caused by a syphilis infection. If caught early, syphilis can be treated by a single injection of penicillin. The syphilis bacteria can take years to be completely removed from the system, and requires additional blood tests to check for the presence of syphilis over time. However, in most cases syphilis is no longer be infectious within 24 hours after injection.

In cases when syphilis does not respond to penicillin, or when an infected individual has a penicillin allergy, other antibiotics may be prescribed.


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