What is Syphilis?
Syphilis is a serious bacterial infection. It is usually passed from one person to another by sexual contact. If it is not treated, Syphilis can lead to permanent brain, nerve, and tissue damage.
How Does Syphilis Occur?
The bacteria that cause Syphilis enter the body through an opening such as the vagina, mouth, or rectum. They can also enter through a cut or break in the skin.
During the early stages of Syphilis, sores form on the body, usually near the genitals. If you touch a sore on an infected person, some of the bacteria will probably rub off onto your body. If the bacteria then get near any moist area of your body (such as the vagina, mouth, or rectum) or on any cuts or breaks in your skin, you may get Syphilis. Once inside the body, the bacteria spread quickly through the bloodstream.
Sometimes a baby is born with Syphilis if the mother has the disease during pregnancy.
What are the Symptoms of Syphilis?
The symptoms of Syphilis vary according to the stage of the disease. During the first stage, smooth, red, painless sores called chancres appear. People usually get chancres near the genitals, but they can form anywhere on the body. Women may not know they have a chancre if it is inside the vagina. Chancres on the penis can usually be seen. These painless sores may appear 10 days to 3 months after contact with an infected person. The sores last 3 to 6 weeks.
If you are infected with Syphilis and you do not get treatment, the disease will develop into the second stage. This second stage is called secondary Syphilis. It begins 6 to 12 weeks after contact with an infected person and may last for weeks to as long as a year. Symptoms during the second stage of Syphilis can include:
- A pink or red, bumpy, scaling skin rash that does not itch and may come and go (you can easily infect other people with this rash, which may include spots on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet)
- Brown sores about the size of a penny
- Swollen lymph nodes ("glands")
- Flu symptoms such as fever, body aches, sore throat, headaches, tiredness, and loss of appetite
- Hair loss in clumps causing patchy baldness
- Gray or pink patches of fatty tissue in damp areas of the body (also highly infectious)
- Wart-like growths in the anal area
The rash in the second stage usually heals within several weeks or months. Often the second stage of Syphilis is followed by a latent period. During latent Syphilis you have no symptoms even though you have not been treated for the disease. This latent period may last a few years or it may last a lifetime.
One in three people who have latent Syphilis develop the third stage of Syphilis. This third stage is called tertiary Syphilis and starts anywhere from 2 to 30 or more years after the second stage. During this stage, the disease can affect the brain, the aorta (the blood vessel that leads from the heart), and the heart. This can lead to severe heart disease, brain damage, paralysis, and death.
How is Syphilis Diagnosed?
Your health care provider will ask about your symptoms and examine you. Your provider will look for chancres on your skin and in your vagina, cervix, and anal area. If you have sores, scrapings from the sores will be examined under a microscope to look for bacteria. Your provider may also test a sample of your blood.