Syphilis is a sexually-transmitted infectious disease caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. Epidemiologically speaking, syphilis affects an estimated 6 million people annually. Even though syphilis is curable and early identifiable, according to the World Health Organization, it continues causing high levels of mortality and morbidity. Syphilis is detectable through a syphilis test, which establishes the diagnosis together with some of the most prominent clinical symptoms and signs. Regardless of the continuous medical updates on syphilis, this sexually transmitted infection keeps spreading among young people and adults, even in high-income countries. Current efforts prioritize the elimination of congenital syphilis, setting the goal of a 90% global reduction in incidence. Syphilis can be deadly if left untreated. However, treatments are available and usually successful.
Quick facts on syphilis
- Syphilis is an STD caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum.
- Syphilis has four stages and is curable with antibiotics.
- Syphilis exposes you to HIV and other STDs.
- Syphilis is transmissible through vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
- You can get syphilis again, after treating it with antibiotics.
- Syphilis is a skin-to-skin disease, not entirely preventable via condoms.
What is the first sign of syphilis?
Syphilis is dividable into four stages. The first one is called primary syphilis and presents with one or more sores on the primary site of the infection. Because syphilis is an STD, the infectious site is usually on or around the genitals, anus, rectum, or in the mouth of the person infected. The sore that appears with this stage is called a chancre. But what does it look like? A syphilitic chancre is firm, round, and painless. It can also be open and wet. What makes this STD particularly hard to notice is that its first sign can pass entirely unnoticed. It can hide in the vagina, rectum, or under the scrotum. Even when visible, you could easily confuse it with an ingrown hair or a harmless pimple. Also, the syphilitic sore doesn't cause any pain or discomfort. It appears in 3 weeks to 3 months after the primary infection and disappears alone in around a month, regardless of the presence of treatment. Not having sores anymore doesn't mean you don't have syphilis. You still do until you complete your treatment. If you noticed any unusual, newly formed change on your body, similar to the description above, you should get tested. STD rapid kit tests are quick and easy diagnostic methods that you can use alone at home for the diagnosis of the disease.
Symptoms of syphilis progression
Syphilis can progress into secondary, latent, and tertiary stages. Secondary syphilis presents with a syphilitic skin rash, fever, and swollen lymph nodes. Symptoms might be mild and hard to notice, or confused with other transient infections. The latent stage is usually asymptomatic. Finally, reaching tertiary syphilis equals to severe medical complications that can lead to death. It affects multiple organs and is generally harder to treat when compared with previous stages. Symptoms in men and women don't differ. What differs from person to person is the intensity and location of the symptomatology. To learn more about the four stages of syphilis, press here.
Syphilis transmission, how can you reduce the risk?
Syphilis is an STD, meaning you can get is by vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Sometimes, even protected sex doesn't exclude that you can get syphilis. As previously mentioned, the source of infection is a highly contagious sore that can present anywhere in or around the genitals, anus, and mouth. Transmission of syphilis is also congenital, meaning that a mother can pass it on her unborn child. Theoretically, the only way to prevent syphilis is abstaining from any form of sexual activity. Practically, this is hard to do for most of us. Therefore, all you can do is lower your chances of getting syphilis. You can do so by:
- choosing to be in a mutually monogamous and longterm relationship with a tested and syphilis-negative partner.
- using condoms every time you have any form of sexual activity, including vaginal, anal, oral, or sex with toys.
Who is at high risk of getting syphilis? Theoretically, any person with an active sexual life is at risk of acquiring the disease. Using protection, and having sex responsibly, makes that assumption less likely. Generally, every pregnant woman should get tested for syphilis in the first trimester. Apart from that, you should get tested if:
- you are a man who has sex with men.
- you are bisexual and sexually active.
- you are HIV positive.
- your partner(s) are syphilis positive.
A positive pregnant woman should get treatment immediately. Congenital syphilis can lead to deafness, seizure, eye cataracts, or even stillbirth. Symptoms may appear later on, while the child is growing, or even a few weeks after delivery.
Syphilis treatment, is syphilis curable?
Syphilis is treatable, especially when diagnosed early. The longer it takes for you to get diagnosed, the harder it gets to treat. Leaving it untreated, you could experience serious, life-threatening complications. The usual treatment against syphilis consists of antibiotics. Penicillin is usually the drug of choice, except for those allergic to it, who will receive a different medication. Your partner needs to get tested too, otherwise, he or she may transmit the infection back to you. While on treatment, you should not discontinue your medication the time the symptoms disappear. Instead, you should receive antibiotics for as long as your doctor suggested. Abstaining from vaginal, anal, or oral sex is also crucial. Finally, you should keep in mind that you can get syphilis again, all over from the beginning. Therefore, you should maintain a responsible attitude towards any sexual activity. If, however, you are exposed to STDs inevitably, you should get tested regularly.