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Syphilis: Description, Causes and Risk Factors:

Alternative Names: Lues venerea, malum venereum.

SyphilisSyphilis is a sexually transmitted, bacterial infection that initially causes genital ulcers (sores). If untreated, the disease will progress to more serious stages of infection, including blindness and nerve damage. In the United States, health officials reported over 36,000 cases of syphilis in 2006, including 9,756 cases of primary and secondary (P&S) syphilis.

HIV infection and syphilis are linked. The disease increases the risk of transmitting as well as getting infected with HIV.

It is a systemic disease caused by the spirochete Treponema pallidum subspecies pallidum. This is one of the clinically important spirochetes and is related to such agents as Borrelia burgdorferi (the cause of Lyme disease) and Leptospira (the cause of leptospirosis). Syphilis occurs exclusively in humans. There is no animal reservoir.

The most common way to get syphilis is by having sexual contact with an infected person. If you are infected, you can pass the bacteria from infected skin or mucous membranes (linings), usually your genital area, lips, mouth, or anus, to the mucous membranes or skin of your sexual partner. Syphilis can be passed from mother to infant during pregnancy, causing a disease called congenital syphilis. Syphilis cannot be spread through contact with toilet seats, doorknobs, swimming pools, hot tubs, bathtubs, shared clothing, or eating utensils.

Types may include:

Primary syphilis.

  • Secondary syphilis.
  • Tertiary Syphilis.
  • Latent syphilis.

Primary Syphilis – The first symptom of syphilis is a single, raised sore called a chancre. It usually appears on the genitals, mouth, or rectum an average of three weeks after exposure. When the chancre is on the penis or near the vagina, lymph nodes in the groin may also become swollen. Because the sore is painless, many people may ignore it unless it becomes infected. The sore can last for several weeks and go away by itself. Without treatment, however, the person still has this which can progress to the secondary stage.

Secondary Syphilis – This stage usually starts with a reddish-brown, spotted rash on one or more areas of the body, but most often on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet. The rash usually does not itch and can appear as the chancre is healing or several weeks after the chancre has gone away. The rash may come and go for up to two years. Other common symptoms may include swollen lymph nodes, fever, fatigue, patchy hair loss, weight loss, and headache. These symptoms usually last from two to six weeks and will clear up with or without treatment. If untreated, the disease will still be present and will then enter into the latent stage.

Tertiary (late) Syphilis – About one-third of people without treatment suffer serious damage to the nervous system, heart, brain, or other organs. Tertiary syphilis can cause paralysis, mental problems, blindness, deafness, heart failure, and even death. Individuals who are co-infected with HIV can progress more rapidly to this late stage. Though treatment at this phase will cure the disease and stop future damage, it cannot repair or reverse the damage that occurred before treatment.

Latent Syphilis – The latent stage of the disease begins when secondary symptoms disappear. During this stage, syphilis becomes latent, which means it shows no signs or symptoms. The infection can be detected only by a blood test. A relapse of secondary syphilis can occur during the first two years of latency. If not treated, latent syphilis continues for life and may progress to the final tertiary stage.

The surest way to avoid transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis, is to abstain from sexual contact or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected. Condoms can prevent transmission, but this method does not provide complete protection from sores and lesions.


General symptoms may include:

Skin rash with roughreddish-brown spots both on the palmsof the hands and bottoms of thefeet. Rashes on other parts of the bodymay not look the same.

  • Sores on the throat, mouth, or cervix.
  • Fever.
  • Swollen glands.
  • Sore throat.
  • Patchy hair loss.
  • Headaches and muscle aches.
  • Tiredness.
  • Weight loss.

Stage 1:

A firm, painless, round, small sore (or sores), calleda chancre, will appear 10-90 days after intimate contact with someone who isinfected.

  • The sores appear most often where the infectionentered the body, on the head or shaft of the penis,around the vaginal opening and rectum, inside thevagina, on the cervix, in the mouth, or on fingers.
  • The sorewill go away in 3-6 weeks, but the disease still in the body and can be transmitted to others.

Stage 2:

Rough, red or brown spots appear 6-12 weeks aftercontact.

  • Sometimes the rash may be so faint that it is not noticeable.
  • The rash can appear anywhere on the body, butoften occurs on the palms of the hand or on thesoles of the feet and is not itchy.
  • Mild flu-like symptoms, patchy hair loss and weightloss.

Stage 3:

A person may never have symptoms again.However, if they do have symptoms they are veryserious and often occur many years after initialinfection. Syphilis can slowly and permanentlydamage your heart, brain and other vital organs. Itcan even cause death.


A doctor can tell if you have the disease.The most common ways include:

Taking a sample of your blood andsending it to a lab for testing.

  • Looking at the fluid from a syphilissore under a special type of microscope. This can only be done duringprimary and secondary stages, whena sore is present.


He is easy to cure in its early stages. Penicillin, an antibiotic, injected into the muscle, is the best treatment for the disease. If you are allergic to penicillin, your health care provider may give you another antibiotic to take by mouth. It is very important to complete the entire course of treatment and to have a follow-up exam to make sure that you are cured.

Persons who receive syphilis treatment must abstain from sexual contact with new partners until the syphilis sores are completely healed. Persons with the disease must notify their sex partners so that they also can be tested and receive treatment if necessary.

If you have neurosyphilis, you may need to receive daily doses of penicillin intravenously and you may need to be treated in the hospital.

If you have late syphilis, damage done to your body organs cannot be reversed.

NOTE: The above information is educational purpose. The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition.

DISCLAIMER: This information should not substitute for seeking responsible, professional medical care.

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