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Syphilis: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that 64% of syphilis occur in men who have sex with men.

What Causes Syphilis [1]

Treponema pallidum is the bacteria that cause syphilis. The bacterium is transmitted through contact with an infected person's sore during sexual activity. The bacteria enter the body through minor cuts in your skin or mucous membranes of the vagina, rectum, lips or mouth.

The disease is most likely to spread during anal, oral or vaginal sexual activity.

Pregnant mothers who have syphilis can easily transmit the bacteria through the placenta, causing congenital syphilis in babies. Most newborns have no symptoms, although a rash on the palms of their hands and the soles of their feet can develop. The later symptoms include teeth deformities, deafness and saddles nose [6] .

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Stages Of Syphilis [2]

  • Primary syphilis - In the primary stage, a small round sore called a chancre develops about 3-4 weeks after a person contracts the bacteria. The sore may appear inside the mouth or rectum and it may remain between 2 to 6 weeks.
  • Secondary syphilis - Skin rashes accompanied by sore throat occurs during the second stage of syphilis. The rash usually develops on the palms and soles and the symptoms include fatigue, fever, hair loss, weight loss, aching joints, headache, and swollen lymph nodes.
  • Latent syphilis - If syphilis isn't treated, it enters the latent stage. The symptoms aren't noticeable, however, the bacteria remain in the body.
  • Tertiary syphilis - This is a life-threatening stage which can lead to deafness, blindness, memory loss, mental illness, heart disease, damaging of soft tissue and bones, neurosyphilis, and neurological disorders.

Symptoms Of Syphilis

In the primary stage, one or more painless, firm and round syphilitic sores develop. In the secondary stage, the symptoms include rashes, muscle aches, fever, sore throat, patchy hair loss, swollen lymph nodes, headaches, unexplained weight loss, and fatigue.

Risk Factors Of Syphilis [3]

  • Unprotected sex
  • Having sex with multiple partners
  • Men who have sex with men
  • Infected with HIV

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Complications Of Syphilis [4]

If untreated, syphilis can also elevate the risk of HIV infection and can also cause problems during pregnancy. The other complications are small bumps or tumours, neurological problems, and heart problems.

Diagnosis Of Syphilis [5]

  • Blood test - Blood test can detect a recent or past infection, as the antibodies to the syphilis-causing bacteria remain in the body for years.
  • Cerebrospinal fluid - Cerebrospinal fluid is collected through a spinal tap and examined to check how much the disease has affected the nervous system.
  • Bodily fluid - The fluid is taken from the sore during the primary or secondary stage.

A person undergo a syphilis test after he has had unprotected sex, had sex with a new partner or multiple partners, had sex with a man, and is a sex worker.

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Treatment Of Syphilis [5]

Primary and secondary syphilis can be easily treated with a penicillin injection, penicillin is an effective antibiotic used for treating syphilis.

If you have tertiary syphilis, you will need multiple injections at weekly intervals. In the case of neurosyphilis, intravenous (IV) penicillin is required every 4 hours for 2 weeks to eliminate the bacteria from the nervous system.

People who are allergic to penicillin will be likely to be treated with other antibiotics like ceftriaxone, azithromycin, and doxycycline.

Prevention Of Syphilis

  • Abstain from sex with multiple partners
  • Avoid sharing sex toys
  • Use condoms during sex
  • Get screened for STIs
View Article References
  1. [1] Sethi, S., Mewara, A., Hallur, V., Prasad, A., Sharma, K., & Raj, A. (2015). Rising trends of syphilis in a tertiary care center in North India.Indian journal of sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS,36(2), 140-143.
  2. [2] Wong, N. S., Huang, S., Zheng, H., Chen, L., Zhao, P., Tucker, J. D., … Yang, B. (2017). Stages of syphilis in South China - a multilevel analysis of early diagnosis.BMC public health,17(1), 135.
  3. [3] Macêdo, V. C., Lira, P., Frias, P. G., Romaguera, L., Caires, S., & Ximenes, R. (2017). Risk factors for syphilis in women: case-control study.Revista de saude publica,51, 78.
  4. [4] Singh, A. E., & Romanowski, B. (1999). Syphilis: review with emphasis on clinical, epidemiologic, and some biologic features.Clinical microbiology reviews,12(2), 187-209.
  5. [5] Pastuszczak, M., & Wojas-Pelc, A. (2013). Current standards for diagnosis and treatment of syphilis: selection of some practical issues, based on the European (IUSTI) and U.S. (CDC) guidelines.Postepy dermatologii i alergologii,30(4), 203-210.
  6. [6] Wijesooriya, N. S., Rochat, R. W., Kamb, M. L., Turlapati, P., Temmerman, M., Broutet, N., & Newman, L. M. (2016). Global burden of maternal and congenital syphilis in 2008 and 2012: a health systems modelling study.The Lancet Global health,4(8), e525-e533.

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