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Syphilis

What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a contagious, sexually transmitted disease that causes widespread tissue destruction. Syphilis is known as the "great mimic" because its symptoms resemble those of many other diseases. It involves the genitals, skin, and central nervous system. There are 2 types: Newborns born to mothers with syphilis (congenital form) and the type that affects persons of all ages and both sexes who acquire it through sexual contact (contagious form).

How does it occur?

A tiny organism called Treponema pallidum causes the infection. The congenital form is spread to the fetus through the bloodstream from the infected mother. The contagious form is spread by intimate sexual contact with someone who has syphilis in the first or second stages. This can be done through oral, anal or vaginal intercourse. Risk for being infected increases with multiple sexual partners and sexual activity between homosexual males.

What are the symptoms?

There are three stages of Syphilis and each has different symptoms.

First Stage appears 3 to 6 days after contact and is very contagious. Its symptoms include:

  • Painless, red sores (chancre) on the genitals, mouth or rectum. The sore usually affects the penis in males and vagina or cervix in females.

Second Stage begins 6 or more weeks after the chancre appears and is still contagious.

  • Enlarged lymph glands in the neck, armpit or groin
  • Headache
  • Rash on skin and mucous membranes of the penis, vagina or mouth The rash has small, red, scaly bumps.
  • Fever (sometimes)

Third Stage may appear years after the first and second stages and is noncontagious.

  • Mental deterioration
  • Sexual impotence
  • Loss of balance
  • Loss of feeling or shooting pains in the legs
  • Heart disease

How is it diagnosed?

Syphilis is diagnosed by drawing blood and sending to the laboratory, microscopic exam of discharge from the chancre or a study of spinal fluid. You should have blood tests done each month for 6 months after treatment to check for recurrence. Then repeat blood tests every 3 months for 2 years.

How is it treated?

Syphilis is treated with Penicillin by injection unless you are allergic to it. If penicillin cannot be used, other antibiotics will be equally effective. Topical medications can be used for skin symptoms.

What can I expect after treatment?

Usually this is curable in 3 months with treatment. In spite of treatment, syphilis returns within 1 year in 10% of patients. If this happens, re-treatment is necessary.

How can I take care of myself?

  • Use rubber condoms during intercourse
  • Avoid any sexual contact if you suspect or know a partner is infected
  • Obtain blood serum tests for syphilis early in pregnancy. If infected, get immediate treatment.