What is syphilis?
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum, which can be asymptomatic for many years and develops in four stages – primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary. Each stage can have unique signs and symptoms, and the infection becomes more damaging as it progresses to the later stages.
How is syphilis spread?
Syphilis is primarily spread through sexual contact with someone with an active infection, usually through contact with the sores or rash on the skin or mucous membranes. The sores can appear on the genitals, anus, or mouth and can be transmitted during oral, anal, vaginal, or genital contact. Pregnant women can also transmit the Syphilis infection to their unborn babies known as congenital syphilis. Additionally, the infection can rarely be spread through blood transfusions or organ transplants from an infected donor. People with HIV/AIDS and men who have sex with men are at a higher risk of contracting syphilis. Though it can also be spread through direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected area, such as during kissing or touching, Syphilis doesn't get transmitted through casual contact with objects, such as toilet seats, doorknobs, swimming pools, hot tubs, bathtubs, sharing clothing, or eating utensils
In the early stages of syphilis, it may not show any symptoms and can remain undetected. As the infection progresses through its four stages – primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary – a range of symptoms may appear depending on the stage. Each stage has its own unique set of symptoms.
The first stage of the infection can occur within 4 weeks to 90 days after coming into contact with an infected person. The primary symptom is the development of a small and (but not always) painless sore known as a chancre which is usually located at the site of infection, such as the genitals, anus, mouth, or any other place where the bacteria can reside. It can last for 3-6 weeks, and often times it can be missed or unnoticed as sore itself typically does not cause any pain or discomfort. However, it may be accompanied by swelling and inflammation in the area around it.
Even though sore might subsided but the bacteria will still be present in the body and can progress to the next stage of the infection if left untreated.
In the secondary stage, a rash may appear on the skin along with other symptoms like fever, sore throat, and fatigue. These symptoms may come and go over a period of weeks or months. If left untreated, the infection can progress to the latent stage, during which no visible symptoms are present, but the bacteria are still active in the body. The rash can be rough and appear red or reddish-brown on the palms of your hands and/or the bottoms of your feet. Other symptoms may include:
- swollen lymph glands;
- sore throat;
- patchy hair loss;
- weight loss;
- muscle aches; and
- fatigue (feeling very tired)
During the latent stage of syphilis, there are no apparent signs or symptoms. However, if left untreated, the syphilis bacteria can remain in your body for several years.
The tertiary stage can be is life-threatening and would occur 10–30 years after your infection began. If syphilis is allowed to reach its tertiary stage without being tested for an detected it can result in various organ damage, such as the heart, brain, nervous system, and other organs and eventually death. However, it is important to note that syphilis can also be asymptomatic, meaning you may not have any visible symptoms, but the bacteria are still present in your body.
How Do I Know If I Have Syphilis?
How to avoid the Syphilis
Syphilis can easily be passed from person to person through unprotected sexual contact with an infected individual. To prevent syphilis, it is advised to practice safe sex by using protection, limiting the number of sexual partners, and being in a long-term and mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is free of syphilis.
Similarly, if you are sexually active and fall under any of the categories below, you should get regular testing for Syphilis.
- gay or bisexual man,
- have HIV,
- taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV prevention, or
- have partner(s) who have tested positive for syphilis
Additionally, it is recommended that pregnant women undergo syphilis testing during their first prenatal check-up. Some women may also need to repeat the Syphilis test at 28 weeks and at the delivery time. Early Testing and diagnosis for Syphilis can help you detect any early infections and start treatment promptly which can significantly reduce the risk of serious health problems associated with syphilis.
What is the test and treatment like for Syphilis?
The test for syphilis typically involves a blood test that looks for antibodies to the bacteria that cause syphilis. Sometimes, a swab or fluid sample from the sore or rash may also be taken to check for bacteria.
Treatment for syphilis usually involves a course of antibiotics, typically penicillin, which is highly effective in curing the infection. The specific type and duration of antibiotic treatment may vary depending on the stage of the infection and other factors, such as the individual's overall health and any allergies they may have. If you have allergic to penicillin, a different antibiotic injection (doxycycline or ceftriaxone) will be used. However, treatment might not undo any damage the infection can cause, especially from later-stage syphilis.
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