What is Syphilis?
Syphilis is a curable, sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum.
How Dangerous is Syphilis?
Syphilis is usually not dangerous if treated in the early stages. However, if left untreated, syphilis can cause serious damage to your internal organs, and can even cause death.
Syphilis can make people more vulnerable to infection to other sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea, chlamydia, or HIV.
Syphilis and Pregnancy
Syphilis in a pregnant woman can cause miscarriage or stillbirth. It can also cause the baby to be born with the infection. This is why all pregnant mothers should be tested for syphilis early on, even if they have no symptoms.
How is Syphilis Spread?
The bacteria that causes syphilis can enter the body through the throat, rectum, and vagina. Someone who has been infected and has a sore or rash can spread the infection to others. Syphilis is usually spread through unprotected sex – oral sex (mouth-to-penis, mouth-to-vagina, mouth-to-anus contact), vaginal sex, and anal sex.
However, you do not have to have sexual intercourse to get syphilis; being in close contact with an infected person’s mouth, genitals, or rectum can expose you to infection. For example, deep kissing when the person has a chancre in the mouth can spread infection. Syphilis cannot be spread on non-living objects, so the risk of getting syphilis from a toilet seat, swimming pool, eating utensils, or clothing, for example, is extremely low. Even if you had and were treated for syphilis in the past, you can get it again.
Signs of Syphilis
There are 4 stages of syphilis, and you may not notice the symptoms of syphilis because they can look like other common infections.
- Primary stage – the first sign of syphilis is usually a painless open sore called a chancre (pronounced SHANKer). Chancres appear where the infection entered the body, such as in the mouth, genitals, or anus. Chancres typically appear 3 weeks to 3 months after the initial exposure. However, you may not notice the chancre if it appears inside the body, such as in the vagina, anus, or mouth. The chancre will last 3-6 weeks and will heal on its own, but syphilis is still present and can be spread to others. The person is highly contagious at this stage.
- Secondary stage – a skin rash may appear 2-8 weeks after the person is first infected. When the skin rash is present, the infected person is very infectious and can easily spread it to others via contact with the skin rash or mouth/genitals/anus. The rash usually appears on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet, but can appear anywhere on the body. The rash also heals on its own in about 2 months without scarring, but syphilis is still present and can be spread to others. The person is highly contagious at this stage.
- Latent stage – The latent stage is defined as 1 year after infection. After the rash from the secondary stage goes away on its own, the infected person will experience no symptoms in this latent stage. Even though the infected person may feel fine and have no external signs of syphilis, the bacteria is still present in the body and is actively doing damage to internal organs. This latent stage can last from 1 – 20 years. Women often do not realize they have syphilis until they give birth to a syphilis-infected baby.
- Tertiary stage – This is the final and most serious and destructive stage of syphilis. If syphilis is not detected and treated in the earlier stages, then serious health problems like blindness, mental disorders, heart disorders, nervous system disorders, and even death can occur.
How is Syphilis diagnosed?
Syphilis is diagnosed with a simple blood test. Because syphilis makes it more likely to get other infections like gonorrhea or HIV, you will probably be tested for other sexually transmitted diseases as well.
How is Syphilis Treated?
Luckily, syphilis is completely curable at all stages with antibiotics. Since there are 4 stages of syphilis, the earlier you get treated, the better. This is because untreated syphilis can do permanent damage on your internal organs. You must be seen by a doctor and be prescribed the correct specific antibiotics for treatment. You cannot treat syphilis on your own.
How can you prevent Syphilis?
There is no vaccine for syphilis. Latex barriers like condoms or dental dams are helpful.
It is important to note that oftentimes, the chancres are not often on the penis itself, but may also be on the scrotum or groin area, where a condom does not cover. Therefore, you should avoid having any kind of sex if there are visible sores on the genitals or if you think you might have syphilis, even if you have no symptoms. You should also avoid receiving/giving oral sex when there are sores on the mouth.
It is also important to note that syphilis can be contagious even when there are no symptoms visible.