What is Syphilis?
Syphilis is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) that is passed through oral, vaginal, front hole, and anal sex. A pregnant person with syphilis can pass it on to their child, sometimes causing birth defects or death. Although less common, it can be transmitted through injection drug use or through broken skin.
Syphilis is diagnosed through a blood test and is easily treated with penicillin or other antibiotics. Left untreated, syphilis moves through four stages:
- Primary: The first sign of syphilis is a small, usually painless, sore (called chancre) that appears at the spot where the bacteria entered the body (usually the throat, genital or anus area). The chancre will heal on its own within 3 to 6 weeks. If left untreated, the syphilis progresses to secondary syphilis.
- Secondary: After the chancre has healed, a person may experience a rash, usually covering the entire body, but it is rarely itchy. At this stage a person may experience hair loss, muscle aches and pains, a fever, sore throat and swollen lymph nodes that can come and go for as long as a year.
- Latency: At this stage there are no longer visible signs or symptoms of syphilis. You can continue to have syphilis in the body for years without any signs or symptoms.
- Tertiary: Not all untreated syphilis reach this stage. However, if it does reach this stage, it can cause serious damage to organ systems.
Syphilis is infectious mostly during the primary and secondary stages (less than one year). During the latency stage, syphilis may progress into a tertiary infection. It is at this stage that syphilis can do the most damage to the body, affecting the brain, blood vessels, the heart and bones. It can eventually lead to death.
Not everyone infected with syphilis will develop symptoms. That is why it is important to know the risks, get tested, and take measures to prevent syphilis.
Health Effects of Syphilis
Syphilis is often referred to as “the great imitator” because of the wide range of symptoms that infected people may experience. These symptoms can easily be confused with those of other conditions.
Of particular concern is the interaction between syphilis and HIV/AIDS. Individuals with the genital ulcers that appear in primary syphilis are 3 to 5 times more likely to contract HIV. Furthermore, people who are living with HIV and also have syphilis are at greater risk of passing the infection to others. It can be difficult to successfully treat HIV patients who have syphilis.
Minimizing the Risk
Following these suggestions may help you protect yourself from contracting syphilis:
- Learn about safer sex and safer injection practices.
- Make informed decisions. Talk to your partner about their STI status and the use of protection.
- Correct and consistent use of condoms reduces the risk of STI transmission.
- Ask for a syphilis test.
- If you are diagnosed and treated for syphilis, be sure to follow up with your doctor after treatment is done to make sure the infection is gone. It is also important that you or someone from your public health department notify any of your sexual or needle-sharing partners who may have been put at risk of infection. They will also need to be tested and possibly treated.
Individuals who are most at risk of acquiring syphilis are:
- Individuals with more than one sexual partner.
- People who inject drugs and their partner(s).
- Sex workers and their client(s)/partner(s).
- People whose sexual partner has syphilis.
- People who have been diagnosed with another STI.