Syphilis - What Is It? How Is It Diagnosed? How To Treat and Prevent It?

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Syphilis is an infection that is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. It is a sexually transmitted infection that has usually four stages - primary, secondary, latent and tertiary. The bacteria, Treponema pallidum enters the body a person infected through cuts or abrasions on the skin or through mucous membranes. Syphilis is also contagious from primary up to the early latent stage.

Below is more information for each stage:

  1. Primary Syphilis - This stage is illustrated with a small sore, usually called a chancre. This sore appears on the area where the bacteria entered your body - whether it’s on your skin, or in your vagina or even in the rectum. This chancre appears a few weeks after exposure
  2. Secondary Syphilis - A rash appears on your body, usually starting from the trunk, covering your back reaching to the palms of hands and even the soles of the feet. These rashes are not itchy. These rashes can also be accompanied by muscle aches, fever, sore throat, and swollen lymph nodes. These symptoms will recur for up to a year.
  3. Latent Syphilis - If left untreated, the disease moves to this stage where there are no symptoms and can exist up to years. This consequently leads to the last stage -
  4. Tertiary Syphilis - At this stage, the bacteria could have infected vital organs of the body such as the heart, blood vessels, and brain. This stage usually occurs many years after contracting the infection.

Modes of Transmission

The primary transmission of Syphilis is through sexual contact (vaginal, oral and anal sex) or perinatal transmission. Listed below are some detailed transmission of the infection:

  • Perinatal Transmission. This transmission occurs when the bacteria is passed during pregnancy from mother to child.
  • Kissing Near A Lesion. Lesions are where bacteria thrive so it can be transmitted when a person kisses a lesion of a person with Syphilis.
  • Blood Products or Transmission Through Blood. Sharing needles and blood transfusion from a blood donor with syphilis to a recipient will lead to the recipient acquiring syphilis.

Testing and Diagnosis

Syphilis can be difficult to diagnose during its early stage but there are some developed and advanced methods of diagnosis of the infection. In the methods of diagnosis listed below, both tests are unable to distinguish as to what stage is the disease is. See the list below:

  • Blood Testing. Blood testing is the most common test because it is an easier procedure compared to direct testing. There are two types of blood testing:
    • Nontreponemal Test. Nontreponemal testing includes venereal disease research and rapid plasma reagin tests. This test can create false positives so further confirmation will need through the Treponemal test.
    • Treponemal Test. The treponemal antibody tests become positive from two to five weeks after contracting the infection.
  • Direct Testing using Dark Field Microscopy. This type of testing can be done during the primary stage of syphilis. Using the serous fluid from chancre and having it undergo dark field microscopy to have an immediate diagnosis. This test is not easily available on medical facilities because of the equipment and skills needed to make the diagnosis.

Tips For Prevention

Avoid engaging in sexual activities

The best and most effective way of avoiding the acquisition of syphilis is to simply stop engaging in sexual activities. If unavoidable and in seek of security or safety, have yourself and your partner tested before engaging in any sexual activity.

Use latex condoms

Latex condoms cover syphilis sores thereby decreasing the risk of transmission of syphilis or any sexually transmitted diseases.

Be in a mutually monogamous relationship with your partner

Having multiple partners increases the chance of spreading or acquiring sexually transmitted infections and diseases, so if possible, when engaging in sexual activities - you and your partner should be monogamous to one another.

Avoid using common tools that have been exposed to fluids and blood

When doing blood transfusion or tests, make sure that the pieces of equipment used are new and avoid exposure of the open wound to another blood or another person’s wound.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can syphilis be acquired through objects (e.g. toilet seats, sharing utensils or clothing)?

No. The Treponema pallidum bacteria die quickly when exposed to an open-air environment - which is why people are less likely to acquire syphilis by sharing things or using public items such as toilet seats.

Who is more likely to get syphilis?

Anybody can get syphilis as long as they are exposed to the right environment for transmission. However, some people have a higher risk of acquiring them, these people include:

  • People who are involved in unprotected sex.
  • People who have multiple sex partners.
  • Men who have sex with other men.
  • People who are suffering from HIV.

Is condom effective method of prevention of getting syphilis?

There is no 100% prevention for syphilis but using condoms lessen the chance of a person acquiring it. A latex condom covers syphilis sores so it is the most effective type of condom to prevent the transmission of syphilis.

How is syphilis treated?

The treatment for syphilis is Penicillin. Even for pregnant women, penicillin is used. Doxycycline and Tetracycline are also good alternatives for people who are allergic to penicillin.

If I was diagnosed with syphilis, is it possible to be infected again?

If you’ve been diagnosed with syphilis and treated properly, it is safe to say that syphilis won’t recur on its own. But this does not mean that you are immune to the bacteria - it is possible to acquire the disease if syphilis enters your body again.

What is the most effective way to prevent yourself from being infected with syphilis?

With sexual transmission being the most common mode of transmission, the most effective prevention against this is to avoid engagement in any sexual activity.

How long does syphilis last?

Syphilis and the bacteria Treponema pallidum can stay in your body for a long time - years. However, the progression of the disease will vary for each person. Syphilis is easily treated as long as it is diagnosed as early as possible. Any damage done on vital organs is likely to be reversed but having treatment will likely stop the progression.

Additional Resources

Centers for Disease Control and CDC provides diverse resources related to HIV and AIDS.
NHSwww.nhs.ukNHS is the UK's biggest health website with topics related to HIV/AIDS.
U.S. Department of Veterans Department of Veterans Affairs has contents on HIV/AIDS treatment as well as testings and procedures.
The Well Projectwww.thewellproject.orgThe Well Project is a non-profit organization whose mission is to change the course of the HIV/AIDS pandemic through a unique and comprehensive focus on women and girls.
National Institute of offers access to the latest, federally approved HIV/AIDS medical practice guidelines, HIV treatment and prevention clinical trials, and other research information.


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