What is syphilis?

Syphilis is an STD (sexually transmitted disease). It is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. While it is not as common as it used to be, syphilis is still considered a potentially deadly disease.

How is syphilis contracted?

There are two ways in which syphilis can be contracted.

It can be spread through close sexual contact, usually in the form of oral, vaginal or anal sex.

Pregnant woman women can pass the disease onto their unborn child, resulting in the baby being born with syphilis. This is known as congenital syphilis, and can result in a number of skin and organ problems in the infant. Congenital syphilis can be fatal.

A pregnant woman who has syphilis is also more likely to have a stillborn baby.

What are the symptoms of syphilis?

There are four stages to this disease. Each stage produces its own set of symptoms.

Primary stage: A painless ulcer called a chancre develops, usually in the genital area. (This indicates where the syphilis-causing bacteria entered the body.) However it may also appear in other areas, such as in the mouth if syphilis is contracted as a result of oral sex. The chancre is firm and oozes fluid that contains the syphilis bacteria.

This stage usually begins around three weeks after a person has been exposed to syphilis (however it can occur anywhere between 10 and 90 days later).

This stage lasts four to six weeks. During this time the chancre may disappear completely, but the infection remains and if left untreated, advances to the next stage.

Secondary stage: The syphilis-causing bacteria now spread to the bloodstream. A number of symptoms develop on the skin. These may include a red rash on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, small blisters filled with pus, or thick grey or pink patches.

There may also be symptoms, which are similar to having the flu, such as fever, aches and pains, and headaches.

These symptoms, which can last for up to a year, may eventually disappear. However they may also return.

Latent stage: This is a dormant period. It usually occurs around two years after a person first contracts syphilis. Most people experience no symptoms during this stage, however the infection is still there. This stage can last for years. It is thought that syphilis remains infectious for one or two years into the latent stage.

If syphilis hasn’t been treated up to this point, there is a chance that it will develop into the final stage.

Tertiary stage: During this stage, the syphilis bacteria can cause serious damage to many internal organs, including the brain, spinal cord and heart.

Tumours called gummas may develop in the mouth, nose, bones, or organs such as the liver.

There may be vomiting or abdominal pain.

This stage can end in blindness, dementia, paralysis, and even death. Syphilis is not infectious during this stage. This stage usually occurs within 10 years of a person first contracting syphilis.

Can syphilis be cured?

Yes, syphilis is a curable disease. It is usually treated with penicillin.

However syphilis can be misdiagnosed, especially if a person is in the secondary stage and is suffering what appears to be flu symptoms.

Also, as some of the symptoms can seem to disappear on their own, such as the chancre, a person may not bother going to the doctor.

As this disease can take at least 10 years to reach its final stage, a person may not realise that the illnesses or problems they have had over that time span may all have been caused by the different stages of syphilis.

It is essential that you attend your doctor if you notice any of the symptoms mentioned. Syphilis can cause death if left untreated.

If I have been treated for syphilis, can I still have sex?

Yes. You can resume sexual activity after you have recovered from your treatment for syphilis. However you will usually have to avoid sexual activity for at least two months after treatment begins. Then you should use condoms. You should be checked regularly for some years after your treatment to check for any recurrence.

What if I have had previous sexual partners?

You should contact every sexual partner you have had to tell them of the possibility that they may have syphilis. They need to be tested immediately. This is absolutely essential, as they may have contracted it from you and need treatment. They may also be inadvertently passing it on to their sexual partners.

What can I do to prevent syphilis?

If you are not in a monogamous relationship in which you know your partner is uninfected, then always use a condom. (Remember that syphilis can also be spread as a result of oral sex, so use a condom for this as well.) Take particular care if you go abroad because syphilis is more common in some areas, such as Africa.

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