Causes, Symptoms and Testing of Syphilis
Syphilis is a bacterial infection caused by Treponema pallidum and is spread primarily through sexual activity, including oral and anal sex. The disease can be passed to another person through prolonged kissing or close bodily contact with an infected person. The infected person is often unaware of the disease and unknowingly passes it on to their sexual partner. Syphilis has also been called “the great imitator” because so many of the signs and symptoms are indistinguishable from those of other diseases.
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.
How Common Is Syphilis?
Approximately 50,000 people are diagnosed with syphilis each year in the United States. Most of the primary and secondary (P&S) syphilis cases occurred in persons 20-39 years of age. The incidence of primary and secondary syphilis was highest in women 20 to 24 years of age and in men 35 to 39 years of age. Between 2005 and 2006, the number of reported P&S syphilis cases increased 11.8 percent. P&S rates have increased in males each year between 2000 and 2006 from 2.6 to 5.7 and among females between 2004 and 2006. In 2006, 64% of the reported P&S syphilis cases were among men who have sex with men.
What Are The Symptoms Of Syphilis?
Many people infected with syphilis do not have any symptoms for years, yet remain at risk for late complications if they are not treated. Although transmission occurs from persons with sores who are in the primary or secondary stage, many of these sores are unrecognized. Thus, transmission may occur from persons who are unaware of their infection.
Syphilis infection occurs in 3 distinct stages.
Primary Stage: People with primary syphilis will develop one or more chancre 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 3 weeks) after exposure. Even without treatment they heal without a scar within 6 weeks.
Secondary Stage: Can last 1-3 months and begins within 6 weeks to 6 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. Other symptoms include:
Swollen lymph glands
Patchy hair loss
White patches on the inside of the mouth
Like primary syphilis, secondary syphilis will resolve without treatment, but without treatment, the infection will progress to the latent and possibly late stages of the disease.
Late and Latent Stages: The latent (hidden) stage of syphilis begins when primary and secondary symptoms disappear. Without treatment, the infected person will continue to have syphilis even though there are no signs or symptoms; infection remains in the body. This latent stage can last for years. The late stages of syphilis can develop in about 15% of people who have not been treated for syphilis, and can appear 10 – 20 years after infection was first acquired. In the late stages of syphilis, the disease may subsequently damage the internal organs, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints. Signs and symptoms of the late stage of syphilis include difficulty coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness, and dementia. This damage may be serious enough to cause death.
What Happens If I Don’t Get Tested?
If syphilis is left untreated, it can cause serious and permanent problems such as dementia, blindness or death.
What You Need To Know About Syphilis
Syphilis, a genital ulcerative disease, is highly infectious, but easily curable in its early (primary and secondary) stages. If untreated, it can lead to serious long-term complications, including brain, cardiovascular, and organ damage, and even death. Congenital syphilis can cause stillbirth, death soon after birth, and physical deformity and neurological complications in children who survive. Syphilis, like many other STDs, facilitates the spread of HIV by increasing the likelihood of transmission of the virus. We recommend getting tested before and after any new relationship to help reduce the risk of contracting Syphilis.