What is syphilis?
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by bacteria called Treponema pallidum. Syphilis is not a common infection in the U.K., the majority of the cases of syphilis in the U.K. were contracted in countries where syphilis is still widespread.
Syphilis develops in three stages:-
- Stage 1 – known as the primary stage.
- Stage 2 – known as the secondary stage.
- Stage 3 – known as the latent stage.
How is syphilis passed on and how can I avoid it?
Syphilis is passed on by close sexual contact, including oral sex. Syphilis can also be passed on from a mother to her unborn child.
Syphilis can be prevented by the correct and consistent use of condoms.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of syphilis are different with every stage, the primary and secondary stages are very infectious.
Primary stage symptoms may take up to 3 months to develop after first becoming infected, they include: –
- Painless red sores, at the place where the bacteria entered the body, usually the vaginavulva, anus, penis or mouth. These sores are called ‘chancre’ and disappear after 2 to 6 weeks even if they are left untreated.
Secondary stage symptoms develop several weeks or months after the sores appear, if the infection remains untreated.
- A non-itchy rash on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet but it may cover the entire body.
- Flu-like symptoms – fever, sore throat, aching muscles and loss of appetite.
- Patchy hair loss.
The signs of secondary syphilis may come and go over the next 1-2 years. Treatment at any time during these first two stages will cure the infection. It is important to visit your doctor or a G.U.M. clinic if you have any of these symptoms to avoid the progression of syphilis to the latent stage.
Latent stage symptoms develop if syphilis has been left untreated over a period of years. It is at this stage that syphilis can spread through the entire body, affecting the heart, muscles, brain and nervous system. This stage is very rare as syphilis has usually been spotted and treated in the earlier stages. At this stage syphilis is no longer contagious. This stage can last for years or even decades and can result in mental illness, blindness,impotence, heart disease loss of balance and even death.
How is syphilis diagnosed?
The doctor will normally begin by giving you a physical examination. If sores are present, the doctor will take a sample of the fluid and have it analysed under a microscope. A blood test will usually be taken to confirm the diagnosis.
How is syphilis treated?
In the first 2 stages, syphilis is easily treated with antibiotic tablets and/or penicillin injections. You may also be prescribed a lotion for skin sores. Ensure your partner also gets examined and treated if necessary to avoid re-infection. After treatment you should have regular blood tests for 2 years to ensure that syphilis has gone. Once syphilis has been successfully treated it will not come back unless you become re-infected. If treatment is given during the latent stage, syphilis can be cured. However, if the infection has damaged the heart, brain or nervous system before treatment was started, the damage may be irreversible.
What long-term affect will syphilis have?
If a pregnant woman has untreated syphilis she can pass the infection to her baby in the womb. This can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, or your child becoming infected with syphilis. Children born with syphilis may have symptoms at birth but most develop later. These symptoms include skin sores, rashes, fever, anaemia and various deformities. As infected infants become older they may develop the symptoms of latent stage syphilis, including damage to their bones and brain.