Syphilis is classified as a sexually transmitted disease or an STD, and it is caused by Treponema pallidum, which is a type of bacteria. As per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as much as 88,000 people were suffering from it in the United States in 2016. Although the cases of women suffering from Syphilis have been on a steady decline; however, in homosexual men, the cases of the disease have been alarmingly rising. 

The sores can recognize Syphilis that it causes to appear on different parts of the body. These sores do not cause any pain, and they mostly develop inside the mouth area, around the vulva, the penis, and the anal area. Syphilis needs to be diagnosed and treated right away because if it is left untreated, it can cause damage to the important organs like the brain and the heart, but diagnosing Syphilis is not always easy as in some cases there are no symptoms.

A person might be suffering from it and still may not be aware of the fact that they have the disease which can be dangerous because that person might pass it on to someone else without even knowing it. The absence of symptoms does not mean that the person cannot spread it to others. 

The mode of transmission is mainly when someone comes in direct contact with the sores. However, it does not spread from the sharing of eating utensils, toilets, or clothes. 

Stages of the Syphilis

Syphilis spreads in four stages, namely:

  • primary
  • secondary
  • latent
  • tertiary

 The primary and the secondary stage is when the infection is transmissible the most. The latent stage is when there are no symptoms, but the disease can still be spread, the tertiary stage is when the infection is the most severe.

  • Primary stage

The primary or the first stage of the infection starts with the appearance of the sores or the chances. It is usually seen 3 to 4 weeks after getting exposed to the bacteria. The sores mainly appear in those areas from where the bacteria entered the body from like, for instance, the mouth, the anal area, and the genitals. The sores stay on the skin surface for up to a period of 6 weeks, and it can be spread if someone comes in direct contact with the chancres through oral, vaginal, and anal sex.

  • Secondary stage

In the secondary stage, the patient develops a rash mainly on the soles of the feet and the palms of the hands. However, it can appear anywhere. The rash usually does not itch, and it is accompanied by a sore throat as well. 

Some other signs, along with the rash and the sore throat are:

  • weight loss
  • hair loss
  • headache
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • inflamed lymph nodes

The listed signs go away on their own even without any treatment, but even then it can still be transmitted. 

  • Latent Stage

At this stage, the signs and the symptoms that were experienced during the primary and the secondary stage usually disappear. But the bacteria still remains in the person’s body. The latent stage goes on for years before developing into the tertiary stage. 

  • Tertiary stage

This stage of Syphilis is the most dangerous as it is tied to so many complications regarding major organs like the heart and the brain. As per the Mayo Clinic as much as 15 to 20% of the people that are not treated for the disease early on end up progressing to this stage. This stage can go on for several years and even decades after the initial contact with the syphilis bacteria. Its complications include:

  • mental illness
  • loss of memory
  • blindness
  • damage to the bones and tissues
  • stroke
  • cardiac issues
  • infection of the spinal cord and the brain

Diagnosis of Syphilis

The diagnosis of the disease is mainly made with the help of a blood test or through a physical exam. If the person has sores, a biopsy of it is done to confirm if they contain the Syphilis causing bacteria or not. Apart from these, if a person shows signs of damage to the brain and the nervous system, a spinal tap or a Lumbar puncture is also done.

A lumbar puncture is a procedure via which a sample of the CSF or cerebrospinal fluid is taken to look for any signs of the infection. If the patient is a pregnant woman, the treatment and the diagnosis should be all the more immediate as if it is not taken care of in time there is a great risk of the baby contracting the disease. Congenital Syphilis is highly risky as it can cause tremendous damage to the fetus and can also be fatal.

Treatment of Syphilis

Syphilis is the easiest to treat while it is still in the primary or the second stage. At these stages, it can be cured with a simple shot of the antibiotic Penicillin. However, if someone is allergic to the antibiotic, there are other alternatives like:

  • ceftriaxone
  • azithromycin
  • doxycycline
  • Syphilis, if it is not treated on time, can turn into neurosyphilis which is the infection of the nervous system. In that case, Penicillin is administered through an IV at the hospital. Syphilis if it is left to progress to a later stage, it cannot be treated; however, the symptoms can be managed with the help of medications. 

When undergoing treatment, it is important to avoid engaging in any kind of sexual activity till the time the chancres heal completely as coming in contact with the sores can cause someone to contract the disease. If a person is diagnosed with Syphilis, their partner needs to be tested and treated as well. 

Prevention of Syphilis

Practising safe sex is the only way to prevent the spread of Syphilis; therefore, the use of condoms while engaging in any kind of sexual activity is of paramount importance. Along with that, the following needs to be done as well:

  • Avoiding sharing of sex toys
  • getting tested for any Sexually Transmitted Diseases
  • using a dental dam or condom during oral sex
  • avoiding the sharing of needles 

Complications associated with Syphilis

Pregnant women who are infected with the syphilis bacteria are at a greater risk of stillbirths, miscarriages, and early births. Along with that, the disease can get transmitted from the mother to the fetus as well, which is known as congenital Syphilis.

Congenital Syphilis can be fatal to the unborn baby. Newborn babies that have the infection exhibit the following signs:

  • fever
  • rashes
  • anaemia
  • jaundice
  • sores
  • seizures
  • deformities
  • inflamed spleen or liver

If congenital Syphilis is not treated on time, the Syphilis can progress to its late-stage, which can seriously damage the baby:

  • teeth
  • bones
  • ears
  • eyes
  • brain

If someone has Syphilis, that person is more susceptible to contracting HIV. The sores act as an easy portal through which the HIV virus can enter the body. The signs and symptoms of Syphilis in those that are suffering from HIV are completely different from those that are not HIV positive. 

The Takeaway

If a person feels like they have come in contact with someone that has the infection or if they are exhibiting signs of the disease, they need to get tested as soon as possible. Syphilis in the first stage is easily treatable, but if it progresses to the tertiary stage, that is when it gets very difficult to treat. If the test results are positive treatment needs to be started without any delays. One thing to note is that with treatment, it is important to complete the full course of the medicines even if the signs go away. With that, it is also important to consult the doctor about resuming any sexual activity because unless the doctor gives the go-ahead it can be highly risky. People who have been tested positive should also get their partners tested.