Some facts about Syphilis
What is syphilis?
Syphilis is a complex sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. It has often been called "the great imitator" because so many of the signs and symptoms are indistinguishable from those of other diseases.
How is syphilis spread?
Syphilis is passed from person to person through direct contact with a syphilis sore. Sores occur mainly on the external genitals, vagina, anus, or in the rectum. Sores also can occur on the lips and in the mouth. Transmission of the organism occurs during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Pregnant women with the disease can pass it to the babies they are carrying. Syphilis cannot be spread by toilet seats, door knobs, swimming pools, hot tubs, bath tubs, shared clothing, or eating utensils.
What are the signs and symptoms in adults?
Can a newborn get syphilis?
Depending on how long a pregnant woman has been infected, she has a good chance of having a stillbirth (syphilitic stillbirth) or of giving birth to a baby who dies shortly after birth. If not treated immediately, an infected baby may be born without symptoms but could develop them within a few weeks. These signs and symptoms can be very serious. Untreated babies may become developmentally delayed, have seizures, or die.
How is syphilis diagnosed?
A health care provider can diagnose syphilis by using dark field microscopy to examine material from infectious sores. If syphilis bacteria are present in the sore, they will show up with a characteristic appearance.
A blood test is another way to determine whether someone has syphilis. Shortly after infection occurs, the body produces syphilis antibodies that can be detected by an accurate, safe and inexpensive blood test. A low level of antibodies will stay in the blood for months or years even after the disease has been successfully treated. Because untreated syphilis in a pregnant woman can infect and possibly kill her developing baby, every pregnant woman should have a blood test for syphilis.
What is the link between syphilis and HIV?
While the health problems caused by syphilis in adults and newborns are serious in their own right, it is now known that the genital sores caused by syphilis in adults also make it easier to transmit and acquire HIV infection sexually. There is a 2- to 5-fold increased risk of acquiring HIV infection when syphilis is present.
Is there a cure for syphilis?
Yes! A single dose of penicillin, an antibiotic, will cure a person who has had syphilis for less than a year. Larger doses are needed to cure someone who has had it for longer than a year. For people who are allergic to penicillin, other antibiotics are available to treat syphilis. There are no home remedies or over-the-counter drugs that will cure syphilis. Penicillin treatment will kill the syphilis bacterium and prevent further damage, but it will not repair any damage already done. Persons who receive syphilis treatment must abstain from sexual contact with new partners until the syphilis sores are completely healed. Persons with syphilis must notify their sex partners so that they also can be tested, and, if necessary, receive treatment.
Will syphilis recur?
Having had syphilis does not protect a person from getting it again. Antibodies are produced as a person reacts to the disease, and, after treatment, these antibodies may offer partial protection from getting infected again, if exposed right away. Even though there may be a short period of protection, the antibody levels naturally decrease in the blood, and people become susceptible to syphilis infection again if they are sexually exposed to syphilis sores.
How can people protect themselves against infection?
Two people who know that they are not infected and who have sex only with each other cannot contract syphilis. When someone's syphilis status is unknown, a good defense against becoming infected during sex is to use a latex condom before beginning sex and to keep it on until the penis is withdrawn. However, condoms do not provide complete protection because syphilis sores can sometimes be on areas not covered by a condom. This is equally important for other STDs, including HIV, as well. Only lab tests can confirm whether someone has syphilis. Because syphilis sores can be hidden in the vagina, rectum, or mouth, it may not be obvious that a sex partner has syphilis. Washing the genitals, urinating, or douching after sex does not prevent STDs, including syphilis.