Syphilis: Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

Syphilis is a bacterial infection that mainly spreads through sexual contact and can cause serious health problems if left untreated. If you may have been exposed to syphilis or are experiencing symptoms, it’s important to seek medical attention right away. With early detection and treatment, syphilis is easily curable, and complications are preventable. Whether you’re looking to reduce your risk of infection or seeking information about treatment options, this article has you covered.

Key takeaways:

What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that is caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. This bacterium enters the body through any break in the skin or mucous membranes of various body parts, including the vagina, penis, anus, rectum, lips, and mouth. However, it most often affects the genitals. Once the bacteria enter the body, they can spread throughout the bloodstream and to other organs, causing a wide range of symptoms and severe health complications if left untreated.

Because syphilis is highly contagious during the early stages of infection, it easily spreads through direct contact with an infected sore. This most commonly occurs during sexual activity, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex. Syphilis can also spread from mother to child during pregnancy or childbirth.

What are the symptoms of syphilis?

Symptoms of syphilis can vary depending on the stage of the infection, including sores on the genitals, a rash on the body, and potentially life-threatening health problems if left untreated. Without treatment, even if symptoms resolve, the infection moves from one stage to the next. For this reason, many people may not realize they have syphilis and can continue to pass the infection to others.

The four stages of syphilis infection are primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary:

  1. Primary syphilis. During this stage, the first symptom is a sore called a chancre that appears where the bacteria enters the body (usually in or around the genitals, anus, or mouth). People typically have a single, painless, small, raised, firm, and open sore, but some may have multiple sores. The chancre can last 3-6 weeks and heal on its own without treatment.
  2. Secondary syphilis. This stage typically begins with the development of a rash after the chancre disappears, although some people may still have a chance. The rash may appear anywhere on the body but most commonly affects the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Other symptoms may include swollen lymph nodes, wart-like growths, fever, headaches, sore throat, and muscle and joint aches. These symptoms can also go away on their own without treatment.
  3. Latent syphilis. No symptoms are present in the latent (or hidden) stage, but the bacteria that cause syphilis remain in the body. This stage can last for years, beginning with an early latent phase (the first year after infection) and then a late latent phase (more than a year after infection). During this time, the infection is detectable through blood tests.
  4. Tertiary syphilis. In the tertiary stage, which can occur years or even decades after the initial infection, serious health problems can occur. These problems can affect the brain, heart, nerves, eyes, bones, and other organs, causing symptoms that range from mild to severe. Because these complications can be life-threatening, getting treatment as soon as possible is vital.

Is syphilis treatable?

Yes, because syphilis is a bacterial infection, it’s treatable with antibiotics. However, the treatment length depends on the infection’s stage and severity in addition to a person’s overall health. If caught during the early stages, syphilis is treatable and curable with a single injection of penicillin. However, if the infection has progressed to a later stage, treatment may require multiple doses of penicillin.

During treatment, it’s important to:

  • Complete the entire course of antibiotics your healthcare provider prescribes, even if symptoms improve. This will help ensure that the infection is completely cleared from the body.
  • Avoid sexual contact to prevent the spread of syphilis to others.
  • Notify any sex partners who may have been exposed so that they can get tested and treated.

Is syphilis preventable?

Yes. Fortunately, there are things people can do to prevent syphilis and reduce the risk of infection. The following are some tips for preventing syphilis and its potential health complications:

  • Practice safe sex. Using a condom every time you have vaginal, anal, and oral sex can significantly reduce the risk of getting syphilis. However, it’s important to know that condoms may not protect against syphilis if they don’t fully cover all infected sores.
  • Get tested regularly for STIs. Regular testing for STIs, including syphilis, can help detect and treat the infection before it causes serious health problems. Because having an STI makes it easier to get another one, testing for and treating other STIs can also help prevent syphilis.
  • Limit and communicate with sex partners. If you are sexually active, having fewer sex partners can help reduce the risk of getting syphilis. It’s also a good idea for you and your partner to discuss each other’s sexual history and get tested for STIs before engaging in sexual activity.
  • Get tested for syphilis if you are pregnant. Getting tested for syphilis during prenatal care can help protect you and your baby from the serious health problems an untreated infection can cause. If you test positive, your healthcare provider can provide safe and effective treatment to prevent syphilis from passing to your baby.
  • Get treated for syphilis. If you think you may have been exposed to syphilis or are experiencing symptoms, seek medical attention as soon as possible. Early detection and treatment can prevent more severe or long-term complications and reduce the spread of syphilis to others.
Syphilis can cause serious health issues and is potentially fatal if left untreated.

Taking steps to prevent the spread of the infection and, if necessary, getting immediate medical care is critical.

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