Syphilis is a sexually transmitted, highly contagious infection caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum.
The disease spread primarily by sexual contact; it may also be transmitted from mother to fetus during pregnancy or at birth, resulting in congenital syphilis.
The signs and symptoms of syphilis vary depending in which of the four stages it presents:
- Primary stage classically presents with one or more sores. The sores are usually small painless ulcers. They occur on the genitals or in or around the mouth somewhere between 10-90 days (average three weeks) after exposure. The sores heal without a treatment within six weeks.
- Secondary syphilis may last one to three months and begins approximately four to ten weeks after the primary infection. It is characterized by a highly infectious, diffuse, reddish-pink rash on the trunk and extremities, including the palms and soles. The rash will not itch. Other symptoms of secondary syphilis may include: headaches, swollen lymph glands, fatigue, fever, weight loss, hair loss and aching joints
- Latent syphilis or hidden stage: in this stage, the secondary symptoms disappear, but the patient will still be infected and can remain in this stage for years before progressing to tertiary syphilis.
- Tertiary Syphilis: If the infection isn't treated, it may then progress to the last stage of infection (tertiary syphilis) a stage characterized by severe problems with the heart, brain, and nerves that can result in paralysis, blindness, dementia, deafness, impotence, and even death if it's not treated.
In the past decade, the rates of primary and secondary syphilis have increased, warranting renewed attention to the diagnosis and treatment of this disease. Men who have sex with men are particularly affected; however, increases in infection rates have also been noted in women, as well as in all age groups and ethnicities.
Diagnosis is usually made by using blood tests
Syphilis can be effectively treated with antibiotics. Penicillin remains the drug of choice in all stages of infection and is the therapy recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Doxycycline, tetracycline, ceftriaxone, and azithromycin have also been used successfully to treat it.