Overview: Syphilis

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New Wyoming Cases, 2015: 10

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacteria Treponema palladium. For many years, documented cases of syphilis were on the decline due to widespread use of antibiotics and increased precautionary measures due to the HIV epidemic. However, recent years have seen increased numbers again, particularly among men who have sex with men.

If left untreated, syphilis will progress through the three stages and become more dangerous. In late stages, syphilis can damage the internal organs, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones and joints. Gradual blindness, paralysis, numbness and dementia can also occur, and in extreme cases, can result in death. Syphilis cannot be spread through contact with toilet seats, doorknobs, swimming pools, hot tubs, bathtubs, shared clothing, or eating utensils. Instead, it is passed from person to person through direct contact with a syphilis sore, mainly on the external genitals, vagina, anus, or in the rectum; sores can also occur on the lips and in the mouth. Sores, or chancres are not painful, unlike herpes sores. Pregnant women with the disease can pass it along to the children during birth.

Basic precautionary measures can be highly effective in preventing the transmission of this disease. Abstinence or monogamy with an uninfected partner is the most effective preventative technique; regardless, knowing one’s own status and the status of one’s partner is important. The use of lubricated condoms can greatly reduce the risk of infection, although the use of spermicidal foams, creams or jellies can cause microscopic abrasions that facilitate transmission. If any sores appear on the body, refrain from sexual activity and get tested immediately.

Symptoms: Syphilis

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Syphilis has been referred to as the “Great Imitator” because symptoms often mimic those of other diseases. There are three stages of syphilis infection, each with different symptoms and complications.

  • Primary syphilis is typically contracted through unprotected sex with an infected person; a single skin lesion (pain-less) then appears within the first three weeks of contact and remains for 4 to 6 weeks before healing on its own.
  • Secondary syphilis generally appears 6-8 weeks after infection, with a non-itchy rash on the trunk and extremities being the primary symptom. Around the genitals, the rash can develop into white, wart-like lesions. Other symptoms can include fever, sore throat, weight loss, headache or enlarged lymph nodes.
  • The third stage of syphilis, known as Tertiary syphilis, occurs 1-10 years after infection and can take up to 50 years to manifest itself. This stage is characterized by soft, tumor-like balls of inflammation anywhere on the body, including the skeleton.

Treatment: Syphilis

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Penicillin is the primary choice for treatment of syphilis, although anyone who is allergic to penicillin will be treated with doxycycline. Advanced stages of syphilis infection may require additional forms of treatment.

See prevention.

Support: Syphilis

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