What is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection, caused by the spirochete bacteria, Treponema pallidum.

How is it spread?

Through vaginal, anal and oral sex, from person to person through direct contact with a lesion. Pregnant women can also spread syphilis to their unborn children.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Syphilis is manifested in several, overlapping stages, Primary, Secondary, Latent and Tertiary (Late).

  • Primary Stage: Symptoms appear between two weeks after exposure to three months via a painless sore or sores in the genital area or mouth at the site where the bacteria entered the body. The sore(s) lasts for 3-6 weeks and heals without treatment.
  • Secondary Stage: Symptoms appear as the sore is healing or afterward. A non-itchy rash develops on the body, often on the palms of hands and soles of feet. Some are very distinct and others are hardly noticeable. Other symptoms include sores in the mouth, vagina, or anus, fever, sore throat, flu-like symptoms, and patchy hair loss. The secondary stage symptoms will subside with or without treatment. Without treatment the disease progresses to the latent and possibly late stages of the disease.
  • Latent Stage: This stage has no symptoms and is only detectable through a blood test. This stage may last for years. Early-latent syphilis, which is when the infection is less than a year old, is considered contagious. Late-latent syphilis, when the infection is greater than a year old, is considered non-contagious. However, because there are no symptoms and previous stage symptoms may have been unrecognized, it is difficult to determine whether someone is in the early or late-latent stage.
  • Tertiary (Late) Stage: When syphilis is left untreated after months or years, it progresses to the Tertiary or Late stage of the disease. At this time the disease begins to produce lesions on the skin, liver, bones, eyes, heart or other vital organs. Lesions on the brain can lead to dementia and other neurological complications. Damage to vital organs can result in death. Most people in the United States do not progress to the tertiary stage because of antibiotic therapy used to treat other infections that can have an indirect effect of clearing the syphilis infection.
How can syphilis affect newborns?

The severity of syphilis in the fetus or newborn, known as congenital syphilis, can range from no symptoms to spontaneous abortion, stillbirth or neonatal death. Common early symptoms of the disease in babies are a generalized skin rash, runny nose, liver and heart issues and multiple organ failure. Late symptoms are usually not present at birth and later appear as long bone deformities, deformities in the bones of the jaw and face, neurological issues resulting in hearing loss and psychosocial deficiencies.

How is syphilis diagnosed?

Primary and secondary syphilis can be diagnosed through microscopic examinations of tissue obtained from lesions. Blood tests, of which there are several types, are the most common means of diagnosing syphilis. A positive result in one type of blood test should be followed-up with a second type of blood test to give a definitive diagnosis, as each test has limitations and may produce false-positive results in certain situations.

How is syphilis treated?

Syphilis is easily cured in the primary, secondary and early-latent stages with a single injection of penicillin. In the later stages, or for those infected with the bacteria for more than a year, additional doses of penicillin are required. Some damage caused by the disease during the later stages is irreversible. Syphilis in pregnancy and congenital syphilis are treatable, but require special considerations.

How can syphilis be prevented?

The best way to avoid transmission of all sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is to abstain from oral, vaginal and anal sex or to be in a long term, mutually monogamous relationship such as marriage, with an uninfected partner.

Consistent and correct condom usage can reduce the risk of syphilis, but does not eliminate it because sometimes the infectious area is not covered by the condom.

Alcohol and drug use may affect a person’s judgment leading to high risk sexual behavior. Therefore, avoiding such substances may also help reduce transmission of syphilis and other STIs.

It is virtually impossible to tell if your partner has an STI, such as syphilis, by what they report or just by looking at them. Many STIs have no symptoms so your partner could have an infection without even knowing it themselves. Getting tested can put both of your minds at ease.

Clarity Testing Clinic specializes in the testing and treatment of STIs. In addition to excellent medical care, our medical professionals provide a listening ear and positive guidance to those in need of STI testing and treatment. Patients are made aware of the possibilities available to them and helped to find a path that doesn’t lead back to the testing clinic. Make an appointment today by visiting our Appointment Page or calling 812-418-3230.