What is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a highly contagious bacterial disease that creates sores and rashes on the body. Though most commonly spread through unprotected sexual contact, it can also be transmitted to other people through direct contact with infected blood. It is not uncommon for a person to be unaware of the infection and unintentionally spread it to their partner. Congenital syphilis can be passed from mother to baby during pregnancy and labor, and it can lead to serious health problems or death for the child.

Originating in France, syphilis used to be a widespread threat to public health worldwide as recently as the 1940s, but it has since become relatively rare in the United States. Improved medical treatments and increased awareness of STDs has helped to lower the numbers. Now it is curable and easily treated as long as it is noticed soon enough.

What are the Symptoms of Syphilis?

The disease goes through different stages of development, and symptoms vary by stage. Depending on how far along the STD has progressed, patients might experience:

  • Painless sores or ulcers on the mouth or genitals
  • Wart-like growths
  • Itching
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Inflammation of the rectal lining
  • Weight loss
  • Rashes across the body
  • Damage to internal organs
  • Changes or damage to vision

Untreated syphilis that has reached the final stage can lead to brain damage, blindness, heart problems, paralysis, deafness, impotence, arthritis, dementia, and even death.

Syphilis Causes

Syphilis is caused by a bacteria called treponema pallidum, which can be transmitted from person to person via sexual activity. It can be passed directly through skin contact if the infected individual has an open syphilis sore or a rash, but usually it is transmitted via vaginal, anal or oral sex. Even shared sex toys can transmit the infection.

Syphilis can also be transmitted via blood, but this only usually occurs via blood transfusions. The risk of contracting syphilis from a blood transfusion is very low, since donated blood is thoroughly tested for infectious diseases before being used.

It is possible for pregnant women to pass syphilis to their unborn baby. This is known as congenital syphilis. Women are usually tested for the disease at their first prenatal visit to ensure that treatment can be administered early, to reduce the risk of the unborn baby contracting it.

How is Syphilis Treated?

Treatment for syphilis involves the administration of penicillin. If the infection is caught early enough, one dose is often sufficient to clear it up. Patients with an allergy to penicillin can be given doxycycline, tetracycline, and other antibiotics instead. Anyone who is being treated must stop all sexual activity, and it is recommended that their sexual partners be tested and treated as well if it is determined that they are also infected.

Syphilis Prevention

The surest way to prevent syphilis is to practice safe sex. Condoms can prevent STIs such as syphilis from being transmitted during vaginal or anal intercourse. However, there it still a possibility of contracting it via oral sex, or via skin contact with syphilis sores in areas which aren’t covered by a condom. For this reason, it is safest to have sex within a monogamous relationship with a partner who has recently been tested and proved negative for syphilis.

Regular sexual health screenings are important for anybody who is sexually active. They may not necessarily prevent you from contracting syphilis, but they can help to detect the disease, as well as many other sexually transmitted infections, early. The sooner syphilis is treated, the less symptoms and long-term medical problems you will face. Plus, regular screenings reduce the risk of you unknowingly passing syphilis or other STIs on to new sexual partners.