Sexually Transmitted Disease



Syphilis Venereal Disease


What Is Syphilis?
How Do I Catch It?
What Are The Symptoms Of Syphilis?
How Is It Diagnosed?
Is There A Cure?
How Is It Treated In Pregnancy?
How Can Syphilis Be Prevented?

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Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Terminology: Syphilis is also known as bad blood, lues and pox.

What Is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is caught by having sex (vaginal, oral and anal) with an infected person. It is caused by a microscopic bacteria called Treponema pallidum. Syphilis is sometimes called the great imitator because the signs are so similar to those of other diseases. For several decades it looked like syphilis - a life-threatening STD - was no longer the scourge of humanity it had been for centuries. With the invention of penicillin it became possible to cure the disease in its early stages. This not only helped prevent a lot of deaths, but also halted the spread of the disease. However, syphilis is on the rise again with 40,000 cases reported to the CDC every year - the highest figures since 1949. In 2006 nearly 10,000 cases of the most contagious forms of the disease were reported. Much of this increase is due to the increasing amounts of heterosexual men and women being infected. Untreated syphilis can eventually lead to paralysis, dementia and even death.

How Do I Catch It?

The bacteria responsible for syphilis can enter your body by having sex with an infected person. It can also be incurred if fluid from a syphilitic sore or rash gets inside a cut on your skin. The chance of catching the disease after a single sexual encounter with an infected person is 30 percent. A person with the disease remains infectious for about 4 years after acquiring the STD but is particularly infectious in the initial stages when they have open sores or rashes.
1. Kissing: Because the bacteria can thrive in warm moist parts of the body (primarily the genitals and anus but also the mouth and eyes), it is possible to become infected from deep kissing. But this is relatively rare.
2. Blood Transfusion: Sometimes people catch syphilis by receiving a contaminated blood transfer. This is rare these days because hospitals test blood for syphillis.
3. HIV: People with HIV seem to be more likely to become infected.
4. Pregnancy: An infected mother can pass the disease onto her fetus from week 16 onwards. This results in congenital syphilis which is associated with serious birth defects and intrauterine fetal death (stillbirth). The more recently the pregnant woman was infected, the more likely she is to pass it onto her baby and the more serious the consequences.
5. Toilet Seats Myth Buster: It cannot spread by using the same toilet seat, bathtub, hot tub, clothes or cutlery as an infected person. The bacterium only survives a few seconds outside of the body.

What Are The Symptoms Of Syphilis?

Syphilis is a stages disease. There is the primary stage where an open sore emerges at the site of infection. The secondary stage starts 2 to 8 weeks later and may cause a rash on the body and flu-like symptoms. The final (tertiary) stage may only occur 10 or 20 years later and this is when manifestations of damage begin to appear - such as blindness, dementia and death.

Primary Stage Syphilis
An open sore or blister called a chancre appears on the site of infection - usually on the vagina, cervix or rectum (penis and scrotum for men). It is often painless and appears between 10 and 90 days (average 21 days) of exposure. In most cases there is only one chancre, but if there are multiple blisters it may be mistaken for genital herpes or chancroid. Women can easily miss the sore if it is inside the lips of the vagina or on the cervix. The blister disappears on its own (even without treatment) within 5 weeks. If it is not treated the infection progresses to the secondary stage.

Secondary Stage Syphilis
At this stage the bacteria has had time to spread through the bloodstream. It can characteristically cause a rash on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Also:
• The rash can appear anywhere on the body, although it may be faint enough not to be noticed.
• Depending on where the bacteria end up it can cause meningitis or uveitis (eye inflammation).

Other symptoms of secondary syphilis can be mistaken for flu:
• General unwellness.
• Fever.
• Sore throat.
• Joint pain.
• Headaches.
• Some hair loss on the scalp.

These symptoms clear up within 2 to 10 weeks. But without treatment the disease progresses to the latent (hidden) later stages of the disease. In the first 4 years of the latent stage some people have relapses in which the rash and chancre return. If still untreated the bacteria continues to quietly damage all the organs of the body.

Final Stage Syphilis

Symptoms of the late stages appear 10 to 20 years after the initial infection. Damage to the internal organs can cause loss of sight, paralysis, numbness, heart problems, stroke and dementia. It is rare today for people to get to this stage because they have been treated long beforehand. However, recently there has been an increase in the number of neurosyphilis cases (where the disease has infected the brain or spinal cord), resulting in meningitis, dementia and lack of coordination.

How Is It Diagnosed?

Anyone with a sore in the genital area should attend an STD clinic for screening. A sample of pus from the sore will be collected and examined under a microscope. This can help differentiate syphilis from other venereal diseases like chlamydia and genital warts. Because sores on the genitals are associated with increased risk of HIV infection, you may also be offered a HIV test. If the bacteria has entered the bloodstream a simple blood test is another way to determine if you have antibodies associated with syphilis. There are more than 200 blood tests for syphilis, including:
VDRL: Venereal Disease Research Laboratory of the US Public Health Service
RPR: Rapid plasma reagin.
FTA-ABS: Fluorescent treponemal antibody absorption test.
MHA-TP: Microhemagglutination assay.

Is There A Cure?

Yes, syphilis is easily cured in its early stages with a single injection of penicillin. If the person has had the infection for longer than a year, additional injections will be needed. People who are allergic to penicillin and who are not pregnant can be given other antibiotics such as tetracycline, doxycycline or erythromycin. While treatment will kill the syphilis bacteria, it will not reverse any damage done to organs. The sooner it is treated, the better. A follow up blood test should be carried out every 3 months for at least 2 years to ensure the bacterium is destroyed. People treated in the latent stages of the disease require a follow up blood test every 6 months. Finally, no treatment is complete unless all sexual partners exposed to the disease are treated. Anyone exposed to the disease within a 90 period should be treated with antibiotics regardless if their test result is negative. Over 90 days only those who test positive need be treated.

How Is It Treated In Pregnancy?

Pregnant women should be given a penicillin injection before their 16th week if possible. If treatment starts any later the fetus may already be infected - but treatment should still be carried out to minimize damage to the fetus. A follow up blood test will be necessary every month for the rest of the pregnancy.

How Can Syphilis Be Prevented?

1. Ideally limit sexual activity to mutually monogamous relationships.
2. Follow STD prevention advice in regards to safer sex practice.
3. Always use a condom or female condom if you are not in a monogamous relationship. However relying on a condom is not enough to avoid syphilis since the condom may not cover infected areas of skin.
4. Undergo annual STD testing at a clinic or doctor's office.
5. Be aware of the symptoms of STDs. In particular look out for sores, rashes and unusual vaginal discharges.
6. Check recommended health screenings for women of all ages.

: Syphilis cannot be prevented by urinating, douching or washing the genitals after sex. Also, having syphilis once does not mean you are immune to getting it again. you will still be susceptible to re-infection.

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For more health advice, see the following:

Reproductive system disorders: List of gyno problems

Back to Homepage: Womens Health Advice

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