Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the Treponema pallidum bacterium.
The best way to prevent syphilis is to avoid sex or practice safe sex. Use protection during any type of sexual contact. Syphilis is transmitted by direct contact with a sore or chancre. This usually occurs during sexual activity, including oral sex.
In addition, it may be helpful to:
- Use a dental dam (a square piece of latex) or condoms during oral sex
- Avoid sharing sex toys
- Get screened for STIs and talk to your partners about their results
- Avoid sharing needles if using injected drugs.
Stages of syphilis infection
There are four stages of syphilis infection:
- Primary syphilis
This stage of syphilis occurs about three to four weeks after a person contracts the bacteria. It begins with a small, round sore called a chancre. A syphiliticchancre is painless but highly infectious and may appear on or inside the mouth, genitals, or rectum. The sore can remain for up to six weeks.
Skin rashes and a sore throat may develop during the second stage of syphilis. The rash won’t itch and is usually found on the palms and soles, but it may occur anywhere on the body. Symptoms will go away whether or not treatment is received but the infected person still has syphilis.
Other symptoms of secondary syphilis may include headaches, swollen lymph nodes, fatigue, fever, weight loss, hair loss and aching joints. Because of these symptoms, secondary syphilis is often mistaken for other conditions.
This is the third stage of syphilis where there won’t be any noticeable symptoms but the bacteria remains. This stage could last for years before progressing to tertiary syphilis.
This final stage of syphilis occurs in a percentage of people who did not receive treatment. Tertiary syphilis can occur decades after the initial infection and can be life-threatening.
Some potential outcomes of tertiary syphilis include:
- blindness and deafness
- mental illness and memory loss
- destruction of soft tissue and bone
- Stroke or meningitis
- heart disease
- Neuro-syphilise. an infection of the brain or spinal cord.
You may need a blood test to diagnose properly. Once diagnosed, primary and secondary stage syphilis can be treated with the right antibiotics.
If you have neurosyphilis, you’ll get daily doses of antibiotics intravenously. This will often require a brief hospital stay. Unfortunately, the damage caused by late syphilis can’t be reversed. The bacteria can be killed, but treatment will most likely focus on easing pain and discomfort.
You will need to avoid sexual contact until your doctor tells you it’s safe to resume sex. Your partner should be treated as well and refrain from sexual activity until both of you have completed treatment.