Syphilis is an STD (sexually transmitted disease) that results from a form of bacteria known as Treponema pallidum. The earliest stage of syphilis results in an open sore which leaks fluid that is full of syphilis bacteria. The disease can be transmitted by contact with the sore, and any other similarly infectious sores that may develop over time, primarily during anal, oral or vaginal sex.
If left untreated syphilis goes through a variety of different stages that can have an impact on different parts of the body, making it very important for anyone who thinks they may have syphilis to go to a doctor or visit an online STI Clinic for further information, help and advice. Syphilis infection can also increase the chances of HIV infection, while those already infected with the latter are more likely to spread it to others if suffering from syphilis.
In the great majority of instances syphilis is caused by sexual contact, and can result from all forms of such contact, possibly even including kissing. Some newborn infants can have syphilis passed on to them by their infected mothers, although this kind of transmission is relatively rare these days on account of routine screenings. Nonetheless this form of syphilis, known as congenital syphilis, can be deadly and results in various organ and skin problems. There is also a higher chance of infected pregnant women having a stillborn baby.
The symptoms experienced by those infected with syphilis can be different depending on what stage the disease is at.
Primary syphilis causes the appearance of a single sore at the point where the bacteria was able to get into the body, usually the genitals, although such sores can likewise form around the anus or mouth. It is firm and not painful but oozes syphilis bacteria in fluid. Lymph nodes close to the sore often become enlarged but like the sore itself do not cause pain. The sore tends to heal within one to five weeks but the infection remains.
The standard symptoms associated with secondary syphilis include a rash on the soles of the feet or the palms of the hand, a skin rash on legs, arm and trunk and white patches that appear on the inside of the mouth as well as other mucous membranes. Other symptoms can include:
While rash symptoms tend to disappear within two to six weeks even without treatment, other symptoms can last up to a year.
There are no symptoms associated with latent stage syphilis.
Tertiary syphilis can cause symptoms connected to serious organ damage, including destructive tumours known as gummas within the mouth, tongue, bones, liver, nose, skin and other organs, breathing difficulties or chest pain connected with damage to the aorta wall or heart valve damage, joint pain, coordination problems, blindness, personality changes, paralysis, loss of sensation, deterioration in intellectual function and impotence because of damage to nerves and the brain.
If you suspect that you have syphilis, or that you have been in sexual contact with someone who has, you should immediately seek medical advice. Your doctor or an online STI clinic will advise you as to the right course of action, including on how to proceed with tests. There will be checks for any of the standard symptoms and possibly blood tests. Syphilis is an illness that can last for the rest of your life without treatment, making it vital to seek help the instant you suspect anything is wrong. Primary syphilis is usually curable with just one injection of long-acting penicillin, though people at a more advanced stage of infection may need more than just one treatment.
People allergic to penicillin can be treated with other antibiotics such as doxycycline, ceftriaxone or azithromycin. With the correct treatment it is possible to cure early syphilis infection without any permanent damage being done. However, while antibiotics can treat syphilis in its later stages, they will not be able to repair any organ damage that the disease has already caused. Death and severe organ damage are suffered by one third of all patients who have latent syphilis that later becomes tertiary syphilis, if they do not seek treatment.