September 23, 2009 Kim Goldman

Syphilis is caused by a bacterium called Treponema pallidum. The bacterium can move throughout the body, damaging many organs over time.

How is it spread?

Syphilis spreads from the sores of an infected person to the mucous membranes of the genital area, the mouth, or the anus of a sexual partner. It also can pass through broken skin on other parts of the body.

What are the symptoms?

The first symptom of primary syphilis is called a chancre. The chancre can appear 10 days to 3 months after exposure, but it generally appears within 2-6 weeks. Because the chancre is ordinarily painless and sometimes occurs inside the body, it may go unnoticed. It is usually found on the part of the body exposed to bacteria, such as the penis, the vulva, or the vagina. It can also develop on the cervix, tongue, lip, or other parts of the body.

The chancre disappears within a few weeks whether or not treatment is obtained. If not treated during the primary stage, the disease may progress through three other stages.

Secondary syphilis is marked by a skin rash that appears anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks after the chancre appears. The rash may cover the whole body or appear only in a few areas, such as the palms of the hands or soles of the feet. Because active bacteria are present in theses sores, any physical contact with the broken skin of an infected person may spread the infection at this stage. The rash usually heals within several weeks or months. Other symptoms may also occur such as a mild fever, fatigue, headache, sore throat, patchy hair loss, and swollen lymph glands throughout the body. The signs of secondary syphilis may come and go over the next 1 to 2 years.

If untreated, syphilis then lapses into a latent stage during which the disease is no longer contagious and no symptoms are present. Many people who are not treated will suffer no further consequences of the disease. However, approximately one-third of those infected go on to develop the complications of late syphilis. In this stage, the bacteria damage the heart, eyes, brain, nervous system, bones, joints, or almost any other part of the body. This stage can last for years or even decades. Late syphilis can result in mental illness, blindness, other neurological problems, heart disease, and death.

How is it diagnosed?

There are three ways to diagnose syphilis

  • A doctor’s recognition of it’s signs and symptoms,
  • Microscopic identification of syphilis bacteria
  • Blood tests.

How is it treated?

Syphilis is usually treated with penicillin administered by injection.

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