Syphilis is diagnosed and treated by Premier Medical Group.

What is syphilis?

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Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by Treponema pallidum, a bacterium. The highly contagious infection is spread primarily through sexual activity, including both oral and anal sex. Syphilis has many symptoms, but the first sign is typically a small, painless sore where the infection was transmitted, often on sexual organs, the rectum, or inside the mouth. The sore itself is called a chancre, and people do not often immediately notice it. Syphilis is only spread through direct contact with these chancres and cannot be spread through sharing a toilet with an infected person, wearing that person’s clothing, or sharing eating utensils.

Syphilis is often divided into stages – primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary – and each stage has its own range of signs and symptoms. Syphilis is the most infectious in the first two stages, and when it is in the latent stage, the disease remains active but without symptoms. Tertiary syphilis is the most dangerous to your health. More than 88,000 cases of syphilis were reported in 2016, according to the CDC. Recently, the rate of women with syphilis has declined steadily in the U.S., but the rate among men has been rising.

What causes syphilis?

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Syphilis is caused by the Treponema pallidum bacteria. The infection is only spread by direct contact with a chancre, or sore. These sores are generally found on the genitals, anus, rectum, in the mouth, and occasionally on the lips. Contrary to popular culture coverage, syphilis cannot spread by sharing toilet seats, door knobs, swimming pools, bath tubs, hot tubs, clothing, or eating utensils.

Syphilis can also spread from an infected mother to her unborn baby. This variation of the disease, called congenital syphilis, can cause physical abnormalities and, in the worst cases, death to the child.

What are the symptoms of syphilis?

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The first, or primary, stage of syphilis typically begins with a small, round sore that appears around three or four weeks, but can take up to 90 days, after contracting the bacteria. These chancres are painless but highly infections, appearing where the bacteria have entered the body. This sore generally remains from two to six weeks; that is the time when the STI is most contagious.

Once the chancre appears, syphilis symptoms are more easily split into their respective stages – secondary, latent, and tertiary.

  • Secondary – The second stage of syphilis is often signaled by a skin rash and a sore throat. The rash may occur anywhere on the body, but it is usually found on the palms and soles. Other symptoms of secondary syphilis can include fatigue, fever, aching joints, weight loss, hair loss, headaches, and swollen lymph nodes. Secondary syphilis is often mistaken for other conditions, so it is important to get tested as soon as you find a chancre.
  • Latent – The third stage of syphilis is also known as the hidden stage. Primary and secondary syphilis symptoms disappear, though bacteria will remain in the body. Depending on whether the condition is treated, this stage can last for several years before progressing to the final stage.
  • Tertiary – Syphilis’ last stage can occur years, sometimes decades, after the initial infection. According to the Mayo Clinic, between 15 and 30 percent of people who do not receive treatment will enter this stage. Tertiary syphilis can be life-threatening and cause deafness, blindness, destruction of soft tissue and bone, stroke, meningitis, heart disease, memory loss, and mental illness. Tertiary syphilis can also become neurosyphilis, which occurs when the bacteria spreads to the brain or spinal cord.

How is syphilis diagnosed?

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Syphilis is easily diagnosed with a fast and inexpensive blood test provided by a doctor or health professional. This blood sample is often accompanied by a thorough physical exam. If a doctor finds a syphilis sore, they may take a sample to determine if the bacteria are present. Pregnant women may receive syphilis screenings, as the bacteria can be in the body even without symptoms.

Syphilis is only diagnosed through a blood test and physical examination, so it is essential to see a doctor immediately if you suspect you may have contracted the bacteria.

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Primary and secondary syphilis, which usually occur within a year of the initial infection, are easily treated with a single dose of penicillin. Those who are allergic to penicillin are treated with tetracycline, doxycycline, or another antibiotic. Later stages of syphilis will require more doses, but the bacteria will eventually go away.

If syphilis is left untreated, it can cause serious and permanent problems. While the bacteria can be eliminated in later stages of the infection, these problems are irreversible. As a result, tertiary and neurosyphilis treatment often focuses on mitigating pain and discomfort.

During treatment, it is important to avoid all sexual contact until the sores are healed and a doctor approves. Remember that having syphilis once does not protect an individual from contracting it again. Re-infection is always possible, even after successful treatment. Always opt for follow-up testing after treatment to ensure the antibiotics were successful in destroying the bacteria.

When to see a doctor for syphilis?

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With the help of a professional, syphilis is an extraordinarily curable disease. With prompt diagnosis and treatment, it is easy to eliminate, but if treated too late, people can sustain permanent damage to the heart and brain. If you believe you may have contracted syphilis or some other type of STD, make an appointment with your doctor or local clinic as soon as possible. Only a medical professional can make the diagnosis and prescribe the needed antibiotic treatment.