Healthy Living

What Is Syphilis All About?

Key Takeaways

  • Syphilis infection falls under the category of sexually transmitted diseases and is caused due to a bacteria known as Trepanema palladium.
  • There are various symptoms that are prevalent at various stages of the disease.
  • Syphilis as a disease can be hard sometimes to identify in a person.

Sexually transmitted infections are one of the worst forms of infections transmitted from one person to another during sexual contact. There are various ways through which the infection can spread from one person to another, including vaginal sex, oral and anal sex. Sexually transmitted infections have been around for many years but with the new microorganisms coming in their form, the way the infection is being spread changes every day.

Like many other forms of STD infections, syphilis is one of the most common diseases that are spread by a bacteria called Treponema pallidum. This disease has been declining slowly in the recent past. Earlier this disease was more prevalent among women. However later, this disease has been known to be affecting men, primarily homosexual men.

Syphilis as a disease can be hard sometimes to identify in a person. Some people can catch the infection and have no symptoms of it at all for years. However, the earlier you discover the infection the better since untreated syphilis can have long-term implications on one’s health affecting the vital organs like the brain and the heart.

Syphilis as an infection only spreads through direct contact with the infected or the chancres. It is transferred from one person to another by sharing a toilet or wearing the infected person’s clothes or using the same utensils.

What are the Stages in which a Syphilis Infection Spreads?

A syphilis infection primarily spreads in four stages namely:

  • Primary
  • Secondary
  • Latent
  • Tertiary

Syphilis infection is considered as the most infectious in its first two stages i.e. in the primary and the secondary stages.

The disease is active in the latent or the dormant stage, but does not show any symptoms or spread to others. The last stage i.e. the tertiary syphilis is the most dangerous form of infection and can cause serious health complications.

Primary Syphilis

The first stage of the syphilis disease is the primary stage which results after three to four weeks of getting infected with the bacteria. It starts with small sores that are round in shape and are known as chancre. The chancre sores do not cause any pain but can spread the infection really fast. The sore normally makes an appearance in the areas that are infected by the bacteria like the mouth, genitals or rectum.

Normally, the sores begin to show up in three days, but the average time ranges from 10 to 90 days. They would normally remain between two to six weeks.

Syphilis can easily spread from one person to another through any form of direct contact with the chancre which is highly possible during a sexual interaction.

Secondary Syphilis

During this stage of the infection, you could be experiencing rashes and soreness in the throat. The rashes would not be itchy but could appear anywhere around the palms and the soles. It could occur in any part of the body. Sometimes the rashes do not cause any symptoms and one may not even notice them. 

Some of the other symptoms of secondary syphilis include:

  • Persistent headaches
  • Inflamed lymph nodes
  • Unexplained fatigue
  • High or low fever
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Severe hair loss
  • Severe pains and aches in the joints

These symptoms tend to disappear with or without any treatment. However, unless correct medication and treatment are administered one would continue to be infected. Since the symptoms of secondary syphilis overlap with other medical conditions, this disease is often misunderstood to be another condition.

Latent Syphilis

The latent or hidden stage of syphilis is the third stage of the disease. The symptoms of the primary and secondary syphilis often disappear and hence in the third stage, there aren't many symptoms to be seen. This doesn’t mean that the infection does not exist. In certain cases, the symptoms of the earlier stages of the infection could resurface or just exist before moving on to the last stage of the infection.

Tertiary Syphilis

The fourth stage of the syphilis infection is known as the tertiary syphilis. People who have not received appropriate treatment for the infection normally reach this stage. Tertiary syphilis could just exist for a number of years or even for decades after getting infected first. It can eventually become complicated and even life-threatening in some cases. Certain  complications that could result out of tertiary syphilis are:

  • Loss of vision
  • Loss of hearing
  • Mental ill health
  • Loss of memory
  • Wear and tear of soft tissues and the bones
  • Neurological illnesses like a stroke or meningitis
  • Cardiac issues
  • Neurosyphilis or an infection that affects the brain and the spine

How can Syphilis be Diagnosed?

If you suspect to be suffering from syphilis, you should see a doctor at the earliest. The doctor will normally examine your blood and urine samples along with a physical examination. If a sore is present then a sample may be obtained for further testing to confirm the presence of the syphilis bacteria.

In case if your doctor is suspecting a problem of the nervous functioning due to tertiary syphilis, a spinal tap or a lumbar puncture test may be suggested. During this, a sample of the CNS spinal fluid is obtained to test further for any growth of the bacteria.

If you are pregnant, your doctor may test you for the bacteria since the microorganisms could exist in your body without you knowing about it. This test would be essential to prevent the foetus from catching the infection. Congenital syphilis is a risk for the unborn that can lead to serious damages in the growing baby. In some cases, it can even be fatal for the new born baby.

Complications arising from the Syphilis Infection for the Expecting Mother and Her Baby

Pregnant women who get infected with syphilis are often at a risk of serious pregnancy complications including miscarriages, giving birth to still babies or premature babies. There is always a risk of passing the infection to an unborn baby if the mother is infected with syphilis. This is called a congenital syphilis.

Congenital syphilis as a medical condition can sometimes be life threatening and babies who are born with this infection could be at a risk of the following conditions:

  • Physical abnormalities
  • Delay in achieving the developmental milestones
  • Seizures
  • Visible rashes
  • High or low-grade fever
  • Inflammation of the liver or spleen
  • Deficiency of iron or severe anaemia
  • Jaundice
  • Sores on the affected part of the body which could be severely infectious

In case if a baby gets affected by syphilis and is left undetected, there are chances of it appearing later in their life causing eventual damages to the bones, teeth, ears, eyes, brain and possible contraction of HIV. People suffering from syphilis often have a risk of acquiring HIV. The sores that come up in these infections can also increase the chances of HIV infections.