What Is Syphilis? What Causes Syphilis?

Syphilis is one type of sexually transmitted disease. Syphilis is the result of a bacterial infection of the genital tract by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. Syphilis is passed from one person to another during direct sexual contact with a syphilis lesion that involves vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Syphilis can also be passed from an infected mother to her baby during pregnancy and result in stillbirth or serious birth defects.

According to Medilexicon's medical dictionary:

Syphilis is an acute and chronic infectious disease caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum and transmitted by direct contact, usually through sexual intercourse. After an incubation period of 12-30 days, the first symptom is a chancre, followed by slight fever and other constitutional symptoms (primary syphilis), followed by a skin eruption of various appearances with mucous patches and generalized lymphadenopathy (secondary syphilis), and subsequently by the formation of gummas, cellular infiltration, and functional abnormalities usually resulting from cardiovascular and central nervous system lesions (tertiary syphilis).

Any person that engages in sexual activity can contract and pass on syphilis. This includes heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual men and women. The more sexual partners a person has, the greater the risk of catching syphilis. Syphilis also increases the risk of HIV infection, which causes AIDS. About 12 million new cases of syphilis occur every year. More than 90% of them are in developing nations where congenital syphilis remains a leading cause of stillbirths and newborn deaths. In North America and Western Europe, syphilis is disproportionately common and rising among men who have sex with men and among persons who use cocaine or other illicit drugs.

The name "syphilis" was coined by Hieronymus Fracastorius (Girolamo Fracastoro). Fracastorius on the temperature of wines, the rise of the Nile, poetry, the mind, and the soul; he was an astronomer, geographer, botanist, mathematician, philosopher and, last but not least in the present context, a physician.

In 1530 he published the poem "Syphilis sive morbus gallicus" (Syphilis or the French Disease) in which the name of the disease first appeared. Perhaps more importantly, Fracastorius went on in 1546 to write "On Contagion" ("De contagione et contagiosis morbis et curatione"), the first known discussion of the phenomenon of contagious infection: a landmark in the history of infectious disease.

What are the symptoms of Syphilis?

A symptom is something the patient senses and describes, while a sign is something other people, such as the doctor notice. For example, drowsiness may be a symptom while dilated pupils may be a sign.
After becoming infected with syphilis, there is an incubation period between of 9 to 90 days (the average being around 21 days) before the first signs and symptoms of the disease appear. Each stage of syphilis has characteristic signs and symptoms but any particular sign or symptom may or may not be present.

Some people with syphilis don't have any signs of infection. In other people, the signs may be very mild. They might not even know they have it. But even if the signs of infection go away on their own, the germs are still alive. They can cause serious health problems many years later.

The first (primary) stage involves the formation of the chancre. At this stage, syphilis is highly contagious. The primary stage can last one to five weeks. The disease can be transmitted from any contact with one of the ulcers, which are teeming with spirochetes. If the ulcer is outside of the vagina or on the scrotum, the use of condoms may not help in preventing transmission. Likewise, if the ulcer is in the mouth, merely kissing the infected individual can spread syphilis. Even without treatment, the early infection resolves on its own in most women.

In men, the first sign of syphilis may be a sore on the penis. In women, the first sign may be a sore around or inside the vagina. One might not even notice the sore, because syphilis sores don't hurt. The sores go away after three to six weeks.

Twenty five percent of cases will proceed to the secondary stage of syphilis, which lasts four to six weeks. This phase can include hair loss; a sore throat; white patches in the nose, mouth, and vagina; fever; headaches; and a skin rash. There can be lesions on the genitals that look like genital warts, but are caused by spirochetes rather than the wart virus. These wart-like lesions, as well as the skin rash, are highly contagious. The rash can occur on the palms of the hands, and the infection can be transmitted by casual contact.

If syphilis is not treated early, it spreads from the sore into the bloodstream. When syphilis gets into blood, it can cause many problems. The most common sign is a rash. The rash may show up, often on the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet, from two weeks to two months after the sore appeared. Other signs of syphilis include fever, sore throat and swollen lymph glands.

The third (tertiary) stage is the final stage of the disease involves the brain and heart, and is usually no longer contagious. At this point, however, the infection can cause extensive damage to the internal organs and the brain, and can lead to death.

After many years, people with syphilis who don't get treatment may begin to have problems in their brain and spinal cord. Syphilis may damage the heart and other organs, too.

What are the causes of Syphilis?

Syphilis is almost always passed through sexual contact. It also can be passed from an infected mother to her baby during pregnancy.

Syphilis is caused by bacteria called Treponema pallidum. The bacteria can enter the body if you have close contact with an infected sore, normally during vaginal, anal or oral sex or by sharing sex toys.

It may also be possible to catch syphilis if one is an injecting drug user and shares a needle with somebody who is infected.

Pregnant women can pass the condition on to their unborn babies, which can cause stillbirth or death of the baby shortly after labor.

It is extremely rare for syphilis to be spread through blood transfusions as almost all blood transfusions are routinely screened for syphilis.

Diagnosing Syphilis

A blood test can tell for sure if a person has syphilis. Sometimes other tests can show how far the syphilis has spread. For example, a doctor may want to look at spinal fluid to see if the syphilis bacteria have spread to the nervous system.

Syphilis has several clinical manifestations, making laboratory testing a very important aspect of diagnosis. In North America, many unsuspected cases are discovered by laboratory testing. The etiological agent, Treponema pallidum, cannot be cultured, and there is no single optimal alternative test.

Serological testing is the most frequently used approach in the laboratory diagnosis of syphilis.

What are the treatment options for Syphilis?

Primary and secondary syphilis can be successfully treated with a single dose of penicillin, which is given as an injection into the buttocks. If allergic, one will be prescribed another antibiotic alternative in tablet form.

Later stages of the disease need to be treated with three penicillin injections, which are given at weekly intervals.

Some of the antibiotics used to treat syphilis can adversely affect methods of contraception that contain the hormones oestrogen and progestogen, such as the combined pill or contraceptive patch. Tell a doctor or nurse if using these methods of contraception so they can advise on additional contraceptive methods to protect from pregnancy.

Preventing Syphilis

Prevention measures include seeking regular medical care throughout a lifetime. Regular medical care allows a health care professional to best evaluate a person's individual risks of catching syphilis and regularly test for the disease. These measures greatly increase the chances of catching and curing syphilis in its earliest stage before serious complications occur.

Other preventive measures include abstaining from sexual activity or having sex only within a mutually monogamous relationship in which neither partner is infected with syphilis or another sexually transmitted disease. Latex condoms also provide some protection when used properly.


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