Syphilis is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection, caused by a bacterium known as Treponema Pallidum. The bacteria are transmitted from an infected person to a healthy person through unprotected sex. If detected in its early stages, syphilis can be easily treated with antibiotics and injections of penicillin. But when the infection is ignored, it can develop into a serious disease and can even lead to death.
The bacteria enter the body when somebody, during vaginal, anal or oral sex, comes in close contact with an infected sore. Also, if one is an injecting drug user and shares a needle with an infected person, one may catch syphilis. If a pregnant woman is infected by the syphilis bacteria, there is a very high risk of her passing the infection to her unborn baby in the womb. This may cause stillbirth or death of the baby soon after labour.
The symptoms of syphilis are often mild and therefore the infection tends to go unnoticed. The symptoms are same in the men and women, and develop in three stages – 1) Primary stage, 2) Secondary stage, and 3) Tertiary stage. The first two stages for up to two years are infectious while the third stage is not infectious.
The first stage is the first three months of the infection and during this period, one may develop:
- A painless sore or ulcer (termed as a chancre) on the parts of the body like the penis, vagina, anus, rectum, tongue, or lips, where the infection was first transmitted. This is the most common symptom of syphilis. However, the chancre may disappear in 1-6 weeks.
- Some may experience a painless enlargement of the lymph nodes.
The secondary stage of the infection may start 6-24 weeks after the disappearance of the chancre. These symptoms may last for about one to three months, and then they disappear. The symptoms may include:
- Non-itchy and infectious rash all over the body including the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.
- Grey or pink, thickened, moist, wart-like patches in the skin folds of the genitals and anus.
- Fever and tiredness.
- Headache and muscle pain.
- In rare cases, patchy hair loss.
Once the symptoms of the secondary stage disappear, the infection enters the third stage, termed as tertiary stage. The initial phase of this stage is symptomless and it may take years after the initial infection for the symptoms to come to the fore. Syphilis may affect the brain, heart, bones, skin, blood vessels, and nerves. The damage may result into mental illnesses, changes in personality, blindness, deafness, difficulty in walking, skin rashes, and can even be fatal.
Primary and secondary syphilis can be confirmed by a blood test. If tertiary syphilis is suspected, a lumber puncture may be carried out. Syphilis can be treated with antibiotics. With proper treatment the patient may make full recovery if the infection is in its first stage or has reached the second stage. But when syphilis has reached the third stage, the damage is almost irreparable.
One must practice safe sex to reduce the risk of getting affected by this infection. Transmission of syphilis can be successfully prevented by:
- being faithful to one partner and avoiding sex with multiple partners.
- using condoms every time one has vaginal or anal sex.
- not having sex till the doctor confirms that one is completely free from syphilis.
- using water-based lubricants so that they don’t damage the rubber in condoms.
- avoiding any sexual activity that may damage a condom.