Syphilis

What is Syphilis

Syphilis is an infection that can spread through sexual contact. The infection can cause serious complications, so it is important to get treatment right away.

There are four stages of syphilis:

  • Primary stage. During this stage sores may form where the disease entered your body.
  • Secondary stage. During this stage skin rashes and lesions will form.
  • Latent stage. During this stage there are no symptoms, but the infection may still be contagious.
  • Tertiary stage. This stage happens 10–30 years after the infection starts. During this stage, the disease damages organs and can lead to death. Most people do not develop this stage of syphilis.

What are the causes?

This condition is caused by bacteria called Treponema pallidum. The condition can spread during sexual activity, such as during oral, anal, or vaginal sex. It can also be spread from mother to fetus during pregnancy.

What increases the risk?

You are more likely to develop this condition if:

  • You do not use a condom.
  • You have or had another sexually transmitted infection (STI).
  • You have multiple sex partners.
  • You use illegal drugs through an IV.

What are the signs or symptoms?

Symptoms of this condition depend on the stage of the disease.

Primary stage

  • Painless sores (chancres) in and around the genital organs, mouth, or hands. The sores are usually firm and round.

Secondary stage

  • A rash or sores. The rash usually does not itch.
  • A fever.
  • A headache.
  • A sore throat.
  • Swollen lymph nodes.
  • New sores in the mouth or on the genitals.
  • A feeling of being ill.
  • Pain in the joints.
  • Patchy hair loss.
  • Weight loss.
  • Fatigue.

Latent stage

There are no symptoms during this stage.

Tertiary stage

  • Dementia.
  • Personality and mood changes.
  • Difficulty walking and coordinating movements.
  • Muscle weakness or paralysis.
  • Problems with coordination.
  • Heart failure.
  • Trouble breathing.
  • Fainting.
  • Soft, rubbery growths on the skin, bones, or liver (gummas).
  • Sudden “lightning” pains, numbness, or tingling.
  • Vision changes.
  • Hearing changes.
  • Trouble controlling your urine and bowel movements.

How is this diagnosed?

This condition is diagnosed with:

  • A physical exam.
  • Blood tests.
  • Tests of the the fluid (drainage) from a sore or rash.
  • Tests of the fluid around the spine (lumbar puncture). These tests are done to check for an infection in the brain or nervous system.
  • Imaging tests. These may be done to check for damage to the heart, aorta, or brain if the condition is in the tertiary stage. Tests may include:
    • An X-ray.
    • A CT scan.
    • An MRI.
    • An echocardiogram. This test takes a picture of the heart.
    • An ultrasound.

How is this treated?

This condition can be cured with antibiotic medicine. During the first day of treatment, the medicine may cause you to experience fever, chills, headache, nausea, or aching all over your body. This is normal and should go away within 24 hours.

Follow these instructions at home:

Medicines

  • Take over-the-counter and prescription medicines only as told by your health care provider.
  • Take your antibiotic medicine as told by your health care provider. Do not stop taking the antibiotic even if you start to feel better. Incomplete treatment will put you at risk for continued infection and could be life threatening.

General instructions

  • Do not have sex until your treatment is completed, or as directed by your health care provider.
  • Tell your recent sexual partners that you were diagnosed with syphilis. It is important that they get treatment, even if they do not have symptoms.
  • Keep all follow-up visits as told by your health care provider. This is important.

How is this prevented?

  • Use latex condoms correctly whenever you have sex.
  • Before you have sex, ask your partner if he or she has been tested for STIs. Ask about the test results.
  • Avoid having multiple sexual partners.

Contact a health care provider if:

  • You continue to have any of the following symptoms 24 hours after beginning treatment:
    • Fever.
    • Chills.
    • Headache.
    • Nausea.
    • Aching all over your body.
  • Your symptoms do not improve, even with treatment.

Get help right away if:

  • You have severe chest pain.
  • You have trouble walking or coordinating movements.
  • You are confused.
  • You lose vision or hearing.
  • You have numbness in your arms or legs.
  • You have a seizure.
  • You faint.
  • You have a severe headache that does not go away with medicine.

Summary

  • Syphilis is an infection that can spread through sexual contact.
  • This condition can cause serious complications, so it is best to get treatment right away. The condition can be cured with antibiotic medicine.
  • This condition can also be spread from mother to fetus during pregnancy.
  • Take your antibiotic medicine as told by your health care provider.
  • Tell your recent sexual partners that you were diagnosed with syphilis. It is important that they get treatment, even if they do not have symptoms.
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