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Syphilis

What is it?
A bacteria called Treponema pallidum caused syphilis. This bacteria is usually transmitted sexually, and then carried through the bloodstream to every organ of the body. Because it lives in the blood, intravenous drug users who share needles are also at risk. The bacteria do not survive outside the body for long; this infection is rarely if ever passed from one woman to another during sex. A pregnant woman with untreated syphilis may transmit the infection to her fetus before birth.

What are the symptoms?
Syphilis occurs in three stages.

1st stage - Symptoms of primary syphilis begin ten to 90 days after infection. An ulcer or sore called a chancre appears on the genitals, lips, anus or inside the mouth. It is painless and usually disappears on it own. Sometimes people do not even notice the blister or chancre.

2nd stage - Secondary syphilis may begin four to ten weeks after the chancre appears, if primary syphilis is not treated effectively. A rash may appear on the hands or the soles of the feet, or elsewhere on the body. Other possible symptoms include:

  • patchy hair loss
  • muscle and joint pain
  • swollen glands
  • fever

Again these symptoms may disappear without treatment.

3rd stage - Tertiary syphilis is a serious illness that may occur several years after infection. It can lead to dementia and permanent damage to the nervous system, heart or brain. It may also cause debilitating arthritis.

How is it diagnosed?
If a chancre is present, a swab of the sore will show the bacteria when examined in the laboratory. Blood tests are also used to diagnose syphilis, however it may be two to twelve weeks after infection before these tests will be able to detect syphilis infection. In addition to these physical and laboratory tests, your doctor may also ask you about your medical and sexual history in order to make a diagnosis.

Are there any complications?
Syphilis can have severe complications and cause permanent damage to the nervous system. Untreated mothers may deliver a baby who is stillborn or has serious birth defects. If a chancre is present, it also significantly increases your risk of getting other sexually transmitted infections like HIV.

How is it treated?
Syphilis is curable and can be easily treated with penicillin injections (or other antibiotics if you are allergic). It is very important to have all of your treatments; otherwise you may develop the later stages of syphilis.

It is very important to have follow-up checkups done to make sure you don't develop the later stages of syphilis. Talk to your doctor about how often you should have check-ups.

Should my partner be checked or treated?
Yes, anyone you had sex with or shared needles with in the last three months should be checked if you develop primary syphilis. If you are diagnosed with secondary syphilis, all of your partners in the last six months should be checked. If you are diagnosed with tertiary syphilis, all of your recent and past partners should be checked. Positive tests for syphilis must be reported to Public Health, so a Public Health nurse may contact you to ensure that you and your partners have been treated for this infection. Do not have unprotected sex with an untreated partner because you can be re-infected.

How can I protect myself from syphilis?
The best protection from syphilis is to avoid intercourse or use a condom for vaginal or anal sex. If you use needles to inject drugs, never share them with another person and follow these tips for safer needle use.

 

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Infections

Bacterial Vaginosis

Chlamydia

Crabs (Pubic Lice)

Gonorrhea

Hepatitis

Herpes

HIV/AIDS

Human Papilloma Virus

Molluscum contagiosum

Syphilis

Trichomonas

Yeast infection

  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital