Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by Treponema Pallidum, a dangerous bacterium that moves from organ to organ causing irreversible infectious damage. The infected sores that Syphilis produces house bacteria that can spread from person to person via oral, vaginal or anal intercourse. Additionally, if you have split or broken skin, the bacteria from the sores or lesions can enter the body through this area, making contact with an infected person that much more hazardous.

Syphilis is broken up into four stages: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary. During the first two stages, when lesions or sores are present and visible, the disease is highly contagious and uninfected partners remain extremely vulnerable to exposure. During the last two stages, although Syphilis is not contagious, the disease can lead to major health complications.

The areas of the body that can be affected from Syphilis are: penis, vagina, rectum, cervix, tongue, lips, or other areas exposed to sores, rashes, and lesions.

History of Syphilis 

Syphilis was named after a poem called “Syphilis” about a shepherd suffering from a popular 16th century disease similar to Syphilis: Great Pox. The disease dates back to the 15th century, where in Europe it ravaged through the region taking and devastating lives. In the 17th century, Syphilis was an uncontrollable epidemic and it was not until almost 100 years later that the disease was officially recognized. At first there was no distinction between Syphilis and another STD, Gonorrhea, but a French scientist named Phillipe Ricord discovered the disease as its own entity and also distinguished the different stages that Syphilis advances into.

Symptoms of Syphilis 

In the first stage of Syphilis, when sores are noticeable, the disease is considered highly contagious. These sores are called “chancres” and can appear as early as 10 days after exposure and as late as three months after exposure. Most individuals exhibit signs after an average of three weeks. As the chancres are most likely to initially form inside the body (within the walls of the vagina, for example) they are not likely to be noticed. Personal detection is especially difficult because the sores are totally painless. Chancres tend to heal and fade away after a few weeks.

The second phase of Syphilis surfaces after the chancres go away. This stage is indicated by the emergence of a skin rash. The rash usually appears about two to three months after the chancres heal and can show up just about anywhere on the body. Most individuals report acquiring rashes on the palms of their hands or the soles of their feet. Furthermore, it is not unusual for the rash to cover the entire body and persist for a several weeks or months.

More symptoms of Syphilis can include: sore throat, fever, fatigue, headache, irregular hair loss, and swollen lymph nodes. Similar to the chancres, these symptoms expire after a few weeks without treatment.

What is more dangerous is that because some of these symptoms are virtually undetectable (like the internal chancres) or can be mistaken for common cold/flu indicators, they are largely ignored. In fact, Syphilis can stay in its secondary stage for two years and the symptoms can come and go without the individual even recognizing them.

Diagnosing Syphilis

Syphilis is known as the “great imitator” as its sore-like symptoms can be mistaken for a variety of assorted diseases. To be sure a person is infected with Syphilis a physician can perform a blood test to establish if the disease is present. In addition, the bacteria can be tested under a microscope to determine if the Syphilis is present. Individuals are encouraged to combine both tests to determine what stage Syphilis is in, or to just determine if there is evidence of the disease since it can take up to 3 months to show a positive result on tests.

Treatment for Syphilis

To treat Syphilis, an injection of procaine penicillin (or benzathine penicillin for primary and secondary Syphilis) can be used. If an individual is allergic to penicillin, a treatment of antibiotics, such as amoxicillin, can be prescribed. When the penicillin or antibiotics have been administered, it is best to get regular checkups and blood tests to ensure that there is no more sign of the disease.

During the mid-stages of Syphilis, the disease can attack the nervous system. In this case, after treatment it is mandatory for the individual to get retested to make certain that there is no evidence of the disease. In most of cases, people are cured, but in later stages of Syphilis the individual cannot be cured as the greater part of the damage that has been inflicted upon the organs is unable to be reversed.

What Happens is Syphilis Goes Untreated?

If the chancres go untreated they tend to disappear on their own, but just because the physical symptoms are no longer visible, it does not mean that the disease has vanished by any means.

Untreated individuals with Syphilis are at a higher risk for contracting other STDs, especially HIV; during the primary stage (chancres) and the secondary stage (including rashes in the genital area) the sores and rashes can provide open entry ways that are susceptible to diseases such as HIV.

Unfortunately, when the disease lapses into its latent and tertiary phases there are no symptoms present, and an individual may not even know that he or she has entered into these stages. These are the stages where the bacteria can inflict the most damage. Of the areas prone to complications most include: nervous system, bones, joints, eyes, heart, brain, and various other parts of the body. These stages can last up to 5 years and have also been reported to last decades. Many illnesses can be attributed to late stage untreated Syphilis such as: blindness, mental illnesses, neurological problems, heart disease, and even death.

Pregnant women with Syphilis can negatively affect unborn babies when they are delivered. Between 50% and 70% of these newborns will result in a syphilitic infant, and 25% of all births will result in neonatal death or stillbirth. Babies that are born into Syphilis suffer greatly and can develop symptoms in about 2 weeks. The infected newborns experience: fever, irregular crying, jaundice (a yellowing of the skin), anemia, infectious skin sores and rashes, swollen liver, swollen spleen, and a number of different deformities. Later on the child can experience damage to their hearing, sight, bones, teeth and brain.

Preventing Syphilis 

The only way to be sure not to contract Syphilis or other STDs is abstinence. If sexual intercourse is unavoidable, abstaining from oral sex is preferred and wearing latex condoms should be diligently practiced. Other ways to prevent contracting Syphilis: having sexual intercourse with one uninfected partner that only has intercourse with you, avoiding any and all contact with sores and lesions (remember these can also be found inside and outside of the body), and limiting the number of sexual partners an individual has can greatly reduce the chances of being exposed to Syphilis.

If infected with Syphilis, and in the instance of a successful recovery, people must remember that re-infection can occur if the individual is exposed to an infected person again. To prevent this from happening, abstaining from intercourse with an infected partner is best.

Regular checkups can prompt an early detection, making it easier to take the necessary steps to rid an individual’s body of the disease in the early stages.

In making sure that pregnant women do not pass the disease onto their child, early testing is imperative to guarantee the infant is not born with Syphilis; starting a defensive treatment program for the mother and unborn child can also be discussed with a physician.

Who Is at Risk for Contracting Syphilis? 

The following list includes those people that are at a higher risk of contracting Syphilis:

  • People with new sexual partners
  • People with more than 2 partners
  • People not using any method of protection
  • People exposing themselves to unknown sores or lesions on or in an infected person
  • People exposing themselves to unknown rashes on an infected person’s skin
  • Individuals engaging in intercourse while under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Homosexual men
  • Individuals infected with HIV

Statistics about Syphilis 

The following are some important statistics about Syphilis:

  • 70,000 new cases are reported a year in America
  • 1 in 3,885 people will contract Syphilis in a year, or 0.03% of the population
  • 12 million people worldwide suffer with Syphilis
  • There are 32 recorded deaths per year as a result of Syphilis
  • Costs associated with Syphilis are approximately $106 million annually
  • The reported rate for men with Syphilis is 3.5 times more than women
  • Incidence of Syphilis is highest for women aged 20-24
  • Incidence of Syphilis is highest for men aged 35-39
  • In men, high rates of HIV co-infection were reported ranging from 20% to 70%

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