The infection of syphilis is a growing concern in today’s world, in fact infectious syphilis diagnoses increased to 8,692 in 2022, up 15.2% compared to 2021 (7,543) and 8.1% compared to 2019 in the U.K. shockingly this is the largest annual number since 1948.
People aged 15 to 24 years remain the most likely to be diagnosed with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in 2022, there were over 400 diagnoses of STIs made each day among young people. With the majority of cases being asymptomatic or unrecognised.
A bacterial infection, syphilis is highly contagious if left untreated and can have serious, long-term effects on one’s health. Despite its prevalence in today’s society, many people remain unaware of the facts about syphilis, how it spreads, and how to protect oneself from getting infected.
To address this knowledge gap, we will provide an overview of all the information you need to know about syphillis; from the symptoms to the available treatments. While the idea of discussing a highly contagious sexually transmitted disease can be uncomfortable, understanding the basics of syphilis are vital to protecting one’s health. To educate and take the guesswork out of preventing and treating syphilis, we have laid out the most important facts to give you the ultimate guide to understanding this STI.
What is Syphilis?
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the bacterium known as Treponema pallidum. This bacteria is spread by sexual contact between two people, this includes kissing and close sexual contact such as vaginal, anal, or oral sex. It is also possible to transmit syphilis to a newborn before it is born if the mother is infected. Though it is less common now than in the past, syphilis is still a major health concern around the world. It is important to understand the different factors that can cause syphilis, the signs and symptoms of the infection, and to know how to diagnose and treat it if necessary.
Causes of Syphilis
Syphilis is spread through direct contact with a sore associated with the infection. These sores typically appear on the penis, vagina, or around the anus. The sores can also appear in the mouth or on the lips. Syphilis can also be transmitted through contact with infected blood, such as through the sharing of needles during drug use. It is important to note that syphilis can be spread even if a person does not have any visible sores. In fact, syphilis can be spread during the primary and secondary stages of the infection, even if no sores are present. This is why it is important to practice safe sex, get tested regularly, and be aware of the signs and symptoms of syphilis.
Signs and Symptoms of Syphilis
The signs and symptoms of syphilis depend on the stage of the infection.
The initial symptoms of syphilis can appear any time from 10 days to three months after being exposed to the infection.
The most common symptom is the appearance of a small, painless sore or ulcer (called a chancre). The sore will appear on the part of the body where the infection was transmitted, typically the penis, vagina, anus, rectum, tongue, or lips. Most people only have one sore, but some people can have more.
The symptoms of secondary syphilis will begin a few weeks after the disappearance of the sore. Common symptoms include:
- A non-itchy skin rash appearing anywhere on the body, but commonly on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet,
- Swollen lymph glands,
Less common symptoms include:
- Weight loss,
- Patchy hair loss,
- Joint pains.
These symptoms may disappear within a few weeks, or come and go over months.
It is important to note that the symptoms of syphilis may be mild and go unnoticed. This is especially true in the early stages of the infection. However, if left untreated, syphilis can lead to serious health complications, including damage to the heart, brain, and other organs.
If you have any of the signs and symptoms of syphilis, it is important to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Your doctor can perform a physical exam and order blood tests to diagnose syphilis. In some cases, a sample of the sore or rash may be taken and tested in a laboratory. If syphilis is diagnosed, your doctor will discuss the treatment options with you.
The symptoms, same for men and women, develop in three stages, which are described below.
- Stage 1 (Primary syphilis): Symptoms of syphilis begin with a painless but highly infectious sore on the genitals or sometimes around the mouth. If somebody else comes into close contact with the sore, typically during sexual contact, they can also become infected. The sore lasts two to six weeks before disappearing.
- Stage 2 (Secondary syphilis): Secondary symptoms, such as a skin rash and sore throat develop. These symptoms may disappear within a few weeks, after which a person may experience a latent (hidden) phase with no symptoms, which can last for years. After this, syphilis can progress to its third, most dangerous stage.
- Stage 3 (Tertiary syphilis): Around one-third of people who are not treated for syphilis will develop tertiary syphilis. At this stage, it can cause serious damage to the body.
Treatment for syphilis depends on the stage of the infection. In the early stages of infection, a single injection of penicillin is usually enough to cure the infection. In the later stages of syphilis, longer courses of antibiotics may be needed. It is important to follow the instructions provided by your doctor and finish the full course of treatment to ensure that the infection is cured. In some cases, the symptoms of syphilis may return after the initial treatment. If this happens, it is important to seek medical attention as soon as possible. It is also important to practice safe sex and get tested regularly to reduce the risk of getting re-infected.
The Bottom Line on Syphilis
Syphilis is a serious infection that can have long-term health effects if left untreated. It is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of syphilis and to seek medical attention if you think you may have been exposed to the infection. With proper treatment and regular testing, syphilis can be cured and the risk of long-term complications can be minimized.
- Protected physical contact through the use of condoms reduces the risk of infection.
- Promoting sex education among teenagers.
- Providing awareness among the population about their sexual health especially in high risks population (high risks population involves sex workers and their partners, Intravenous drug users, truck drivers, labour migrants, refugees, and prisoners).
- People with this disease should refrain from any sexual contact for at least 1 week after completing treatment or until the lesions of early syphilis (if they were present) are fully healed.
- People with syphilis should also refrain from any sexual contact until sexual partners have been contacted, tested, and if indicated treated.
- Follow-up blood tests must be done to make sure that treatment has cleared the infection.
- Pregnant women are screened for syphilis in early pregnancy and again in late pregnancy if they are at increased risk of acquiring syphilis.
- Testing to exclude other sexually transmitted infections is advisable.
The best way to prevent syphilis is to practice safe sex, such as using condoms or other forms of protection during sexual activity. It is also important to get tested regularly and to talk to your doctor about any concerns you have. Additionally, it is important to avoid sharing needles and other drug paraphernalia. By following these simple steps, you can reduce your risk of getting infected with syphilis and other STIs. If you have any questions about syphilis or other sexually transmitted infections, be sure to speak to your doctor. They can provide you with the information and resources you need to stay safe and healthy.