Posted September 5, 2022 by Anusha ‐ 3 min read

Syphilis is a highly contagious disease that’s mostly spread through sexual activity, including oral and anal sex. The infected person often doesn’t know that they have the disease and passes it on to their sexual partner.

Causes of Syphilis

  • Syphilis is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum.

  • You get it through direct contact with a syphilis sore on someone else’s body.

  • This usually happens during sexual activity, but the bacteria can also get into your body through cuts on your skin or through your mucous membranes.

  • Syphilis can’t be spread by toilet seats, doorknobs, swimming pools, hot tubs, bathtubs, shared clothing, or eating utensils.

Symptoms of Syphilis

Early or primary syphilis

  • People with primary syphilis get one or more sores called chancres.

  • They’re usually small, painless ulcers.

  • They happen on your genitals, on your anus or rectum, or in or around your mouth between 10 and 90 days (3 weeks on average) after you’re exposed to the disease.

  • Even if you don’t treat them, they heal without a scar within 6 weeks.

  • But treatment will keep your disease from moving to the next stage.

Secondary syphilis

  • This stage begins 6 weeks to 6 months after you’re exposed.

  • It may last 1 to 3 months. People with secondary syphilis usually get a rosy copper penny rash on the palms of their hands and soles of their feet.

  • They may also have different rashes on other parts of their body. These may look like rashes caused by other diseases.

  • People may have moist, wart-like lesions in their groin, white patches on the inside of their mouth, swollen lymph glands, fever, hair loss, and weight loss.

  • As with primary syphilis, symptoms of secondary syphilis will get better without treatment.

Tertiary syphilis

  • If the infection isn’t treated, it may move on to a stage marked by severe problems with your heart, brain, and nerves. You could become paralyzed, blind, or deaf, or get dementia or impotence. It can even be deadly.

Diagnosis of Syphilis

Your doctor will need to do a physical exam. They might give you tests including:

Blood tests

A quick test at your doctor’s office or a public health clinic can diagnose syphilis.

Cerebrospinal fluid tests

If your doctor thinks you might have neurosyphilis, they’ll test fluid taken from around your spinal cord.

Darkfield microscopy

Syphilis bacteria are visible through a microscope in fluid taken from a skin sore or lymph node.

Treatment of Syphilis

  • Syphilis is curable with quick diagnosis and treatment. But if it’s treated too late, it can permanently damage your heart and brain even after the infection is gone.

  • If you’ve had syphilis for less than a year, one dose of penicillin is usually enough to kill the infection.

  • If you’re allergic to penicillin, you might get another antibiotic instead, like doxycycline. If you’re in a later stage of the disease, you’ll need more doses.

  • If you’re pregnant and allergic to penicillin, your doctor will probably have you undergo a process called desensitization, which will let you take the drug safely.

  • Don’t have sexual contact until the infection is completely gone. Your sexual partners should also be tested and, if necessary, treated.

  • Some people with syphilis have an immune system reaction called a Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction several hours after their first treatment.

  • This might include fever, chills, headache, upset stomach, rash, or joint and muscle pain. These problems usually go away within 24 hours.

disorders diseases syphilis

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