What is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a bacterial infection that initially causes skin sores and rashes to form on the genitals, skin, and mucus membranes. Although this infection is curable, it can be fatal if it is not treated quickly. If left untreated, syphilis may cause permanent damage to other organs, such as the brain and heart.

Syphilis is caused by a bacterium called Treponema pallidum. There are four different stages of syphilis:

  • primary
  • secondary
  • latent
  • tertiary

The disease is contagious during the primary and secondary stages, and sometimes, the latent period.

Most cases of syphilis are transmitted during oral, anal, or vaginal sex. A patient may also acquire the infection if his/her blood comes into contact with an infected patient’s blood. It may also be transmitted through direct contact with an infected person’s skin sore. An infected pregnant woman may also transmit the infection onto her fetus during pregnancy. This is because the mother’s infected blood passes through the placenta and to the baby.

Treponema pallidum is not able to survive outside of the body. Therefore, the disease cannot be transmitted by sharing clothing, toilet seats, or other objects with an infected person.

Syphilis Symptoms and Stages

Symptoms of syphilis vary with each stage. Initial symptoms during the primary stage typically develop 10 days to three months after exposure. Symptoms commonly include enlarged lymph nodes near the groin and a small painless chancre sore on the part of the body where the bacterium was transmitted. Chancre sores are most common on the tongue, lips, genitals, or rectum.

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In order to prevent life-threatening complications of syphilis, patients should be tested if they have symptoms of syphilis or suspect that they were exposed to syphilis.

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Syphilis Treatment

If treated early, patients with syphilis can expect a full recovery. Patients receive one to three injections of an antibiotic called penicillin. This medication kills the bacterium and cures syphilis. Even if a pregnant mother receives treatment for syphilis, the newborn should also receive antibiotics as a precautionary measure. Patients should avoid sexual contact with their partners during treatment in order to prevent transmitting the infection.

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If you have been experiencing symptoms of Syphilis or suspect you have been exposed to Syphilis, please get tested immediately.
If you’re unsure of how often you should get tested, without experiencing symptoms, talk to your doctor.
Patients who test positive for Syphilis should tell their partners. Your partners should be tested and treated to prevent re-infection.

Females should undergo annual Pap smears.

Selected References

American Social Health Association. Accessed April 28, 2009.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Accessed April 28, 2009.
Cline JS. Sexually transmitted diseases: will this problem ever go away? N C Med J. 2006 Sep-Oct;67(5):353-8.
Rupp RE, Stanberry LR, Rosenthal SL. Vaccines for sexually transmitted infections. Pediatr Ann. 2005 Oct;34(10):818-20, 822-4.
World Health Organization (WHO). Accessed April 28, 2009.
Zhou P, Qian Y, Xu J, et al. Occurrence of Congenital Syphilis After Maternal Treatment With Azithromycin During Pregnancy. Sex Transm Dis. 2007 Jul;34(7):472-474.