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Syphilis

A microscopic look at the bacteria that causes syphilis.

Treponema pallidum

Syphilis is a highly infectious sexually transmitted infection. Rates of syphilis in the United States have been rising since 2000. On average 34,000 new cases are diagnosed in the United States each year.

How is it transmitted?

Syphilis, which is a bacteria, is transmitted through sexual contact. The bacteria is primarily transmitted through direct contact with sores most commonly found on the external genitalia. Because these sores may be unrecognized and painless, the individual transmitting syphilis is unaware that they are transmitting it. Once the bacteria is in the bloodstream, it travels to all organs in the body. This means that intravenous drug users can also transmit the bacteria if they share needles. Congenital syphilis, is a condition that is passed from the mother to her child during birth.

How can you protect yourself?

Even though the only 100% reliable method of protection is abstaining from sexual intercourse, condoms are the next best method of providing protection against transmission of syphilis.

What are the symptoms in women?

The first symptom in women will be a chancre, or painless sore, anywhere from 10 to 90 days after exposure to the bacteria. The sore is usually found on the part of the body exposed to the partner's ulcer, such as the vulva or vagina, but may also develop on the cervix, tongue or lips. Many times this first stage will go unnoticed, and the sore will disappear. One third of the infections will then move onto a secondary stage, often marked by a red skin rash usually on the hands or feet. Other symptoms such as mild fever, headache, sore throat, hair loss, and swollen lymph glands may occur.

What are the symptoms in men?

A sore will appear where the bacteria first entered the body, usually from about three weeks to 90 days after infection. During this time, men who have syphilis are very contagious. The sore will appear anywhere in the genital area on the penis and is often not painful. The sore will last for up to 40 days and can heal on his own. As the disease progresses, a reddish-brown rash will appear on the body, which may become puss-filled. Other symptoms include fever, sore throat, fatigue, or unexplained weight loss.

How is it diagnosed?

There are also many different tests, such as simple swabbing of the sore and blood tests, available for syphilis that can be ordered by your doctor. If your doctor has detected any symptoms of syphilis or any other STIs, a diagnosis will most likely be confirmed by blood tests. Know and be vigilant of the symptoms and don't hesitate to be tested.

What is the treatment?

Depending on the stage of the disease, treatment options vary. Penicillin injections have been very effective in treating early and later stages of syphilis; however, those with penicillin allergies have other antibiotic options, including doxycycline, tetracycline, or azithromycin (which can be taken orally). Proper treatment will cure the disease, but damage already done to body organs in late stages of syphilis cannot be reversed.

What are the long-term health effects?

If syphilis is identified during the primary stage, there are no long term-side effects of the disease itself, since will cure your symptoms. If syphilis progresses into later stages, meningitis (an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord) may occur. Because syphilis can infect any organ in the body, long-term consequences may include cardiovascular problems, aneurysms, or tumors on bones, skin and organs. Should the disease progress into neurosyphilis, the most extreme form of the disease, blindness, deafness, dementia, psychosis, loss of muscle function, seizures, paralysis, or death may result.

Additional Items of Note

If you or your partner is having symptoms related to syphilis, talk to your physician about getting tested. For more information about syphilis, you can contact the Center for Disease Control at 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636) or email at cdcinfo@cdc.gov.

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