What is syphilis?

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Syphilis is a very common sexually transmitted infection caused by a type of bacteria called Treponema pallidum. The infection can be gotten from anal, oral, and vaginal sex with an infected partner (acquired syphilis). Many people pass the infection to others without realising they have it. If a pregnant woman has syphilis, she can also pass the infection to her unborn baby (congenital syphilis).

What are the symptoms?

Some people get syphilis without ever having symptoms. In those who develop symptoms, the symptoms depend on how advanced the disease is and where in the body it has spread.

Primary stage

Within about 90 days of exposure to the bacteria, a sore (called a chancre) develops in the area through which the bacteria entered, such as on the genitals, rectum or mouth. The sore is usually painless, such that it may come and go away without being noticed. These sores contain the syphilis bacteria, and contact with these sores during sex may cause infection.

Secondary stage

Untreated primary syphilis may go on to secondary syphilis within about eight weeks after getting the sore. The symptoms can include fever, malaise, joint pain, tiredness, non-itchy skin rashes, and mouth or genital sores which are also infectious. These symptoms will eventually go away, although some may come back.

Latent stage

Without treatment, the symptoms of primary and secondary syphilis may disappear, and this stage is called ‘latent’ (hidden). The infection is still present but not causing any signs or symptoms, and this can go on for years.

Late stage

Some people with untreated syphilis may go on to get late (or tertiary) syphilis. At this time, the infection has spread to other parts of the body such as the brain or spinal cord, the heart, the liver, bones and joints. The symptoms of late syphilis is dependent on where it has spread to.

What treatments work?

Antibiotics are the main treatment for syphilis, regardless of what stage it is or where it has spread. However, treatment can’t undo any damage already caused by syphilis. This is why it’s important to be diagnosed and treated early.

The main antibiotic used for syphilis is penicillin, usually given as an injection. If the infection has spread to your brain or spinal cord, an intensive treatment in hospital may be needed. If you are allergic to penicillin, you must tell your doctor so he can know what to do.

For late syphilis, antibiotics may need to be combined with other treatments to help with the damage syphilis has caused.

What will happen to me?

Most people make a full recovery from syphilis with appropriate early treatment. However, if syphilis isn’t treated early on, it can cause serious damage or even kill.