What is Syphilis?
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidium. The infection is usually sexually transmitted, in which case it is called venereal syphilis. It may also be passed from an infected mother to her unborn child, in which case it is known as congenital syphilis. The symptoms of Syphilis are the same in men and women. They can be mild and difficult to recognize or distinguish from other STDs. Symptoms may take up to 3 months to appear after initial infection. Syphilis is a slowly progressing disease that has several stages. The primary and secondary stages of syphilis are very infectious.
Symptoms of Primary stage of Syphilis:
One or more painless ulcers (know as chancres) appear at the place where the syphilis bacteria entered the body. On average, this will be 21 days after sexual contact with an infected person. Chancres may be difficult to notice and are highly infectious.
The usual locations for chancres are:
- On the vulva (outside the vagina) or on the cervix (neck of the womb) in women
- On the penis in men
- Around the anus and mouth (both sexes).
Without treatment, the ulcers take between 2 and 6 weeks to heal. If the infection is not treated at this point then it will progress to the secondary stage.
Syphilis is easy to cure in its early stages.
Signs and symptoms of syphilis include a firm, round, small and painless sore on the genitals, anus, or mouth, or a rash on the body, especially on the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet.
Syphilis can be transmitted through direct contact with syphilis sore.
The methods of transmission are:
- By having vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who has the infection
- From a mother to her unborn baby.
Syphilis cannot be passed on by sharing baths, toilets, towels or eating utensils.
How is Syphilis tested?
To find out if someone has syphilis, a doctor will usually carry out the following examinations and tests:
- A blood sample is taken
- A specimen of fluid is taken from all sores using a cotton swab and examined under a microscope
- The genital area is examined for any primary signs of syphilis. The rest of the body is also checked.
- Women are given an internal examination to check for sores
None of the examinations should be painful, but they may be slightly uncomfortable.
How is Syphilis treated?
Treatment for syphilis usually consists of a two-week course of intramuscular penicillin injections or, in some cases, antibiotic tablets or capsules. It is important that the full course of treatment is completed. If treatment is interrupted then it may be necessary to start again from the beginning.
The patient will be asked about their sexual partners as it is important they are informed and tested as soon as possible. It is strongly advised to avoid any oral, vaginal or anal sex while having treatment, especially if the patient is in the early infectious stages of syphilis. Contact with any sores or rashes carries a risk of syphilis transmission.
After the treatment is completed the patient will be asked to attend the clinic at regular intervals for blood tests to check that the syphilis has gone.
Treatment is only capable of killing the syphilis bacteria and preventing further damage. It cannot repair damage already done to organs, or prevent re-infection if the person is exposed to the bacteria again.