Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacterium treponema pallidum. Syphilis is passed from person to person through direct contact with a sore. Sores occur mainly on the external genitals.
Sores also can occur on the lips and in the mouth. Transmission of the organism occurs during sexual intercourse. Pregnant women with the disease can pass it to the babies they are carrying.
Syphilis cannot be spread through contact with toilet seats, swimming pools, bathrooms, shared clothing, and eating utensils.
Syphilis infection occurs in different stages. The primary stage of the disease is usually marked by the appearance of a single sore called a chancre, but there may be multiple sores.
The time between infection and the start of the first symptom can take averagely 21 days. The chancre is usually firm, round, small, and painless. It appears at the spot where the disease entered the body. The chancre lasts 3 to 6 weeks, and it heals without treatment.
However, if adequate treatment is not administered, the infection progresses to the secondary stage.
In secondary stage; skin rash and mucous membrane lesions characterize the secondary stage. This stage typically starts with the development of a rash on one or more areas of the body.
The characteristic rash of secondary syphilis may appear as rough, red, or reddish brown spots both on the palms of the hands and the bottoms of the feet.
However, rashes with a different appearance may occur on other parts of the body, sometimes resembling rashes caused by other diseases.
In addition to rashes, symptoms of secondary syphilis may include fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and fatigue.
The signs and symptoms of secondary syphilis will resolve with or without treatment, but without treatment, the infection will progress to the latent and possibly late stages of disease.
In the late stages of syphilis, the disease may subsequently damage the internal organs, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints.
Signs and symptoms of the late stage of syphilis include difficulty coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness, and dementia. This damage may be serious enough to cause death.
The syphilis bacterium can infect the baby of a woman during her pregnancy.
Depending on how long a pregnant woman has been infected, she may have a high risk of having a baby born dead or of giving birth to a baby who dies shortly after birth.
Syphilis is easy to cure in its early stages. A single intramuscular injection of penicillin, an antibiotic, will cure a person who has had syphilis for less than a year.
Additional doses are needed to treat someone who has had syphilis for longer than a year. People, who are allergic to penicillin, may be treated with other antibiotics.
Treatment will kill the syphilis bacterium and prevent further damage, but it will not repair damage already done.
Because effective treatment is available, it is important that persons be screened for syphilis on an ongoing basis if their sexual behaviors put them at risk for these sexually transmitted diseases.
Having syphilis once does not protect a person from getting it again. Following successful treatment, people can still be susceptible to re-infection.
The surest way to avoid transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis is to abstain from sexual contact or to be in a long term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected.
Avoiding alcohol and drug use may also help prevent transmission of syphilis because these activities may lead to risky sexual behavior.
Correct and consistent use of latex condoms can reduce the risk of syphilis as well as genital herpes and chancroid, only when the infected area or site of potential exposure is protected.
Transmission of sexually transmitted diseases cannot be prevented by washing the genitals, urinating, and douching after sex.
Any unusual discharge, sore, rash, particularly in the groin area should be a signal to refrain from having sex and to see a doctor immediately.