Syphilis is caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. It is a complex disease that causes various symptoms at different stages of infection. If left untreated, syphilis can have many serious complications.
Syphilis is transmitted through sexual contact (vaginal, anal, or oral) with an infected person. In particular, the syphilis bacterium is transmitted through direct contact with syphilis sores, which mainly occur in the genital area of both men and women. Because the sores are often painless, people may not know they are infected.
The primary risk factors for syphilis include:
• Engaging in sex without a male or female condom
• Having sex with more than one partner
• Having sex with someone who has multiple sex partners
The chance of becoming infected with syphilis can be reduced by avoiding risky sexual behaviors.
To reduce your risk:
• Use latex or polyurethane condoms during sex
• Limit the number of your sex partners
If you have symptoms suggestive of syphilis or think you may have been exposed to it, you should seek medical attention immediately.
If you have recently been treated or are being treated for syphilis, you must make sure your sex partner(s) also receives treatment in order to prevent getting infected again. Sex partners should receive treatment even if they do not have any symptoms.
Primary or early symptoms: The first symptom of syphilis infection is usually a small painless sore (chancre) in the area of sexual contact (penis, vagina, anus, rectum, or mouth). The sore usually appears about 2-6 weeks after exposure and disappears within a few weeks.
Secondary symptoms: Shortly after the sore heals, a rash all over the body (including the palms of the hands and soles of the feet), swollen lymph nodes, fever, or tiredness may be noticed. These symptoms also disappear within a few weeks. Even though the initial symptoms of syphilis clear up on their own, the syphilis bacterium will remain in the body if not treated.
Latent symptoms: During the latent stage of syphilis, there are no symptoms but the bacterium is still in the body.
Syphilis is a very serious infection for both men and women. It spreads through the whole body. Without proper antibiotic treatment, the disease can cause heart disease, dementia, blindness, paralysis, and death. Infection with syphilis increases the risk for transmitting or acquiring HIV infection.
Syphilis can be diagnosed in several ways. A sample from a syphilis sore can be examined under a microscope. In addition, a blood test can be used to diagnose syphilis.
Syphilis is treated and cured with the antibiotic penicillin. People who have had syphilis for less than one year can be cured with one dose of penicillin. For people who have had syphilis longer, more doses of penicillin are required.
It is important to make sure your sex partner(s) also receives treatment in order to prevent getting infected again. Avoid having sex while being treated to reduce the chances of getting the infection again or transmitting it to someone else.