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Syphilis: Types, Prevention & Transmission

Syphilis is an infection caused by bacteria. It is a sexually transmitted illness that affects the genitals in the early stages but can also involve many other parts of the body, including the brain and the heart. In recent times, the number of new syphilis infections has reduced worldwide.

How is syphilis transmitted?

The bacteria responsible for syphilis – Treponema pallidum may be transferred during oral, anal or vaginal sex. Transfer occurs when there is direct contact with syphilitic sores on the genitals, anus, rectum, lips and mouth.

It may also be transferred from an infected pregnant mother to her unborn infant. This is called Congenital Syphilis. It may be life-threatening or cause severe problems for the unborn baby.

How can I tell if I have syphilis?

The signs and symptoms of syphilis may occur in four stages — primary, secondary, latent and tertiary. Early syphilis describes the first 3 stages of syphilis while late syphilis is set aside for tertiary syphilis. These symptoms are similar in men and women.

  • Primary syphilis

    This is the first stage. It may occur from around 10 days to 3 months after exposure to the bacteria. It begins with the formation of a small painless sore on the part of the body the transmission occurred. This sore, called chancre may be often seen on the genitals but may also be seen on the tongue, lips or anus. Sometimes, there are multiple sores. The sores heal even without any treatment between 3 to 8 weeks after their appearance.

  • Secondary syphilis

    This may begin 3 to 6 weeks after the appearance of the sores in the primary stage. Here, the infection is more widespread and affects more areas in the body. A rash soon develops with small circular sores over the area of the body, including the palms and soles. There is also fever, soreness and aching in joints and muscles, wart-like growths on the mouth, genitals or anal region, fatigue and a vague feeling of discomfort. These symptoms may disappear without treatment within a few weeks or repeatedly come and go for as long as a year.


  • Latent syphilis

    This describes the period in which no symptoms of syphilis is seen.

  • Tertiary syphilis

    This stage occurs years after the original infection. If untreated, primary syphilis can progress to tertiary syphilis, leading to serious damage to the body and its organs. In severe cases, death may occur. The following are some symptoms that may be seen in tertiary syphilis: lack of coordination, numbness, paralysis, blindness, and dementia.

Neurosyphilis, the infection of the nerves and the brain may occur at any of these stages. It usually causes headache, behaviour changes and movement problems but some people may not have any symptoms. Syphilis may also affect the heart and its vessels (called cardiovascular syphilis) but this is rare.

How is syphilis tested?

Your doctor will ask you several questions about your overall health and your symptoms. This will be followed by a physical examination. A simple blood test can usually be used to diagnose syphilis at any stage. If you think you may have syphilis, you should go to your doctor because syphilis will not go away on its own and untreated infections may lead to complications.


How is syphilis treated?

The condition can be treated with antibiotics, usually penicillin injections. When syphilis is treated properly, the later stages can be prevented. Pregnant women with syphilis must be treated before birth.


How can I prevent syphilis?

Follow the tips below to prevent syphilis:

  1. Use protection when you have sex. Condoms are able to prevent the spread of most disease-causing microorganisms. They are also effective in preventing pregnancies. Ensure to apply condoms before the onset of sexual activity.
  2. Get tested with your partner. If you or your partner test positive, don’t have sex until the end of treatment and the disappearance of the sores.
  3. Limit your sexual partners. This reduces the possibility of acquiring sexually transmitted infections.
  4. Avoid sharing sex toys.


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