What is syphilis?
Syphilis is a common infection in people, especially adults, around the world. Consequently, it is important for you to know what it is, and what causes it. This will help you know how to treat it, and how long it should take.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that may cause infected sores, ulcers, or blisters. They may appear on your genitals, mouth, or anus. You may get it by engaging in sexual activity with an infected person or by sharing sex toys.
Syphilis can be divided into the following stages:
- Primary: You may have a sore or sores at the original site of infection. Normally the sores are painless, round, and maybe firm. The most common places they occur are around your genitals and anus, or in your rectum.
- Secondary: You may start to experience symptoms like fever, skin rashes, and swelling of the lymph nodes.
- Latent: You may not experience any signs or symptoms during this stage.
- Tertiary: This is the final stage of the condition. It may include medical complications. A severe syphilis infection may affect your brain, heart, and other body organs.
If you suspect you have syphilis, you should get tested and treated as fast as possible. It is important that you know how to identify the signs and symptoms of syphilis. That may help you to detect it as early as possible.
Main symptoms of syphilis
You may experience different symptoms of syphilis depending on the stage you are in. Symptoms are usually the same for men and women. They can be classified into three groups.
The early symptoms of syphilis during the primary stage may appear within three weeks after infection. These early symptoms include:
- Small painless sore (chancre): The sore may appear on the penis, vagina, or around the anus, although it can sometimes appear in the mouth or on the lips, fingers, or buttocks. You may have one or more sores. The chancre disappears within three to six weeks.
- Swollen lymph glands in your neck, armpits or groin.
After the early symptoms are gone, you will enter the secondary stage. You may start experiencing signs of secondary syphilis which include:
- A reddish brown rash
- White patches in the mouth
- Headaches, fever, tiredness, and other flu-like symptoms
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Patchy hair loss: This might only happen occasionally
- Weight loss
Following the secondary stage, there may be times when your syphilis infection is latent. This is the time there are no signs or symptoms at all for months or even years. You still need treatment to get rid of it.
People who have had syphilis for a long time face serious health problems. During the final, or tertiary, stage of syphilis, symptoms are much more severe. They can include:
Early symptoms may pass in a few weeks or a few months. This process should not be mistaken for healing. You will still have syphilis even if you do not show any symptoms.
Main causes of syphilis
The main causes of syphilis include:
- Engaging in sexual activity with an infected person: any contact of the genitals or non-penetrative sex can pass syphilis between partners.
- Passing from mother to child during pregnancy: If you have an untreated syphilis infection during your pregnancy, your child is most likely going to get congenital syphilis. This can lead to miscarriage or stillbirth.
- Sharing needles and blood transfusion: You may get syphilis if you share needles with an infected person. Blood transfusion from an infected person will also spread the syphilis bacterium from the donor to the recipient.
Diagnosis for syphilis
Only a licensed healthcare professional can diagnose syphilis. When you visit your doctor, they will likely ask about your medical and sexual history. They will examine your symptoms and the affected area. Your doctor may also take blood samples which will be tested in a lab to determine if you have syphilis.
There are two types of blood tests to prove whether you have a syphilis infection:
- Nontreponemal tests detect damage to your cells caused by syphilis
- Treponemal tests detect antibodies that your body creates to fight syphilis
Both types of tests are needed to confirm a positive diagnosis for syphilis.
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Treatment for syphilis
After determining that you have syphilis, your doctor may give you a single injection of long-acting penicillin if you are still in the primary stages.
If you are allergic to penicillin, your doctor may give you antibiotics like doxycycline, azithromycin, or ceftriaxone. You should also have your sexual partner tested and treated. Babies born with congenital syphilis are typically treated with a course of penicillin.
If you are an adult or an adolescent with syphilis of unknown duration, you will probably be treated over an extended period of time.You may also be treated with a much more powerful form of penicillin called penicillin G benzathine.
The recommended treatment for neurosyphilis and ocular syphilis is the even more powerful Aqueous crystalline penicillin G. This medicine is usually given intravenously in a hospital for up to two weeks.
Possible complications and side effects
All of the medications listed in this article for the treatment of syphilis may have different side effects. Consult your healthcare provider about possible complications of any medications you might take for your syphilis.
You should abstain from sex until the infection heals completely. This will help to prevent both re-infection and the development of irreversible complications.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Syphilis - CDC Fact Sheet (Detailed)”
Harvard Health Publishing: "Syphilis."
National Health Service: "Syphilis."
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