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Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. It spreads mainly by sexual contact, but may also be transmitted by infected mothers to their unborn children.
Syphilis produces an ulcer known as a chancre ("shanker") at the spot where the disease entered the body. It appears from 10 days to two months after infection.
If left untreated, the chancre will be followed by a rash and other symptoms. Syphilis can eventually lead to such nervous system disorders as blindness, insanity or paralysis.
A person who has syphilis is 3 to 5 times more likely to catch and pass on HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), the virus that causes AIDS.
- What it is: Syphilis is a infectious disease caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. It is curable, and best treated early.
Transmission: Syphilis is almost always transmitted sexually, when infected lesions come in contact with the mucous membrane inside the vagina or urethra, or when infected lesions come in contact with an abrasion during vaginal, oral or anal sex (even if there is no penetration).
An infected person who has not been treated may infect other people during the first two stages of the disease, which normally lasts one to two years.It is also possible for a pregnant woman to pass on the infection to her unborn child (congenital syphilis). Children could born with congenital syphilis can have serious mental and physical problems as a result. In pregnant women with untreated early-stage syphilis, 40% of pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion, stillbirths or early infant deaths. In 2001, 10 infants in Mississippi were born with congenital syphilis.
Symptoms: There are four stages of syphilis: primary, secondary, latent and tertiary.
The first symptom in the first, or primary stage of syphilis, is the appearance of an ulcer called a chancre. The chancre may appear anywhere from 10 days to three months after contact, but generally appears within two to six weeks after exposure. It is normally raised or elevated, but painless. It appears at the point where syphilis entered the body, and so may be found on the genitals, including the penis, scrotum and vagina; inside the vagina or rectum; at or around the anus; or in less common cases, on the lips or in the mouth.
The chancre lasts from one to five weeks, and goes away by itself. Without treatment, however, the disease remains.
Since the chancre is painless and may go unnoticed, it is not uncommon for an infected person to transmit the disease at this stage without knowing it.
One to two months after the primary stage, secondary syphilis will develop.
Secondary syphilis is characterized by a rough, reddish-brown rash with sores about the size of a penny, mainly affecting the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. It may also appear on the neck, head and torso. At times, the rash is so faint that it may go unnoticed. The rash may be accompanied by fever, sore throat, headache, weight loss, muscle aches, swollen lymph glands, and general tiredness"malaise".
Syphilitic "warts" (moist, raised or elevated skin lesions) may also be found in the anal or genital area. Mucous patches" (flat, round, grayish-white sores) may also turn up on the mouth, throat and cervix. Patchy loss of hair may also begin at this stage.
Once syphilis advances to the latent stage, there are no signs or symptoms. This third stage may develop from 2 to 30 years after initial infection. Since there are no symptoms, only a blood test can detect the disease.In the late, or tertiary, stage of syphilis, an infected person may develop heart and blood vessel problems, chronic nervous system disorders (blindness, insanity, paralysis), and gummas, which are small bumps or tumors that develop on the skin, bones, liver or any other organ.
Prevention: Use a latex condom during sex. Even with use of a condom it is possible to contract syphilis, since the sores may be on areas not covered by the condom. The only reliable prevention (besides abstinence) is for two people who know they're not infected to have sex only with each other. Washing the genitals, urinating or douching after sex does not prevent syphilis, or any other sexually transmitted disease. It is also possible to get syphilis through oral sex. To avoid syphilis, sexual contact of any kind should be avoided with anyone whose health status is unknown.
- Testing: In its first stages the syphilis bacteria may be recognized under a microscope. In later stages, a blood test is required.
- Treatment: Syphilis in its early stages can be treated with one or more injections of penicillin. Successful treatment must be confirmed by a blood test. Treatment is available for the later stages of the disease, but its damaging effects to health are permanent.