Syphilis is a highly contagious disease spread primarily by sexual activity, including oral and anal sex. Occasionally, the disease can be passed to another person through prolonged kissing or close bodily contact. Although this disease is spread from sores, the vast majority of those sores go unrecognized. The infected person is often unaware of the disease and unknowingly passes it on to his or her sexual partner.
Pregnant women with the disease can spread it to their baby. This disease, called congenital syphilis, can cause abnormalities or even death to the child.
Syphilis cannot be spread by toilet seats, door knobs, swimming pools, hot tubs, bath tubs, shared clothing, or eating utensils.
What Causes Syphilis?
Syphilis is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum.
How Common Is Syphilis?
Syphilis was once a major public health threat, commonly causing serious long-term health problems such as arthritis, brain damage, and blindness. It defied effective treatment until the late 1940s, when the antibiotic penicillin was first developed.
According to the CDC, the rate of new cases of syphilis had plummeted in the 1990's and in the year 2000 it reached an all time low since reporting began in 1941. However, there has been a gradual rise since then with over 36,000 cases being reported in 2006.
How Do I Know If I Have Syphilis?
Syphilis infection occurs in three distinct stages:
Early or primary syphilis. People with primary syphilis will develop one or more sores. The sores resemble large round bug bites and are often hard and painless. They occur on the genitals or in or around the mouth somewhere between 10-90 days (average three weeks) after exposure. Even without treatment they heal without a scar within six weeks.
The secondary stage may last one to three months and begins within six weeks to six months after exposure. People with secondary syphilis experience a rosy "copper penny" rash typically on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. However, rashes with a different appearance may occur on other parts of the body, sometimes resembling rashes caused by other diseases. They may also experience moist warts in the groin, white patches on the inside of the mouth, swollen lymph glands, fever, and weight loss. Like primary syphilis, secondary syphilis will resolve without treatment.
Latent syphilis. This is where the infection lies dormant (inactive) without causing symptoms.
Tertiary syphilis. If the infection isn't treated, it may then progress to a stage characterized by severe problems with the heart, brain, and nerves that can result in paralysis, blindness, dementia, deafness, impotence, and even death if it's not treated.
How Is Syphilis Diagnosed?
Syphilis can be easily diagnosed with a quick and inexpensive blood test given at your doctor's office or at a public health clinic.
How Is Syphilis Treated?
If you've been infected with syphilis for less than a year, a single dose of penicillin is usually enough to destroy the infection. For those allergic to penicillin, tetracycline or doxycycline can be given instead. If you are in a later stage of disease, more doses will be needed.
People who are being treated for syphilis must abstain from sexual contact until the infection is completely gone. Sexual partners of people with syphilis should be tested and, if necessary, treated.
What if Syphilis Is not Treated?
If syphilis is left untreated, it can cause serious and permanent problems such as dementia, blindness, or death.
How Does Syphilis Affect a Pregnant Woman and Her Baby?
Depending on how long a pregnant woman has been infected with syphilis, she has a good chance of having a stillbirth (birth of an infant who has died prior to delivery) or of giving birth to a baby who dies shortly after birth.
If not treated immediately, an infected baby may be born without symptoms but could develop them within a few weeks. These signs and symptoms can be very serious. Untreated babies may become developmentally delayed, have seizures, or die.
How Can I Prevent a Syphilis Infection?
To reduce your risk of syphilis infection:
- Avoid intimate contact with a person you know is infected
- If you do not know if a sexual partner is infected, use a condom in every sexual encounter
Syphilis is a curable disease with prompt diagnosis and treatment. However, if treated too late, there may be permanent damage to the heart and brain even after the infection is destroyed.