Syphilis – Symptoms in Women & Men
It’s easy to dismiss the symptoms of syphilis. After all, the disease is often called “the great imitator” because the signs and symptoms of syphilis can mimic the symptoms of a thousand other diseases. But unlike most other infections, syphilis is a progressive systemic disease – if you don’t give it the attention it deserves, it can advance to serious illnesses and irreversible damage to the body, and even cause death.
What Is Syphilis?
Syphilis is an infectious and chronic sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. The disease starts with a painless chancre or ulcer, but if left untreated, can attack the heart, brain and the nervous system.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), every year, an estimated 70,000 Americans contract syphilis. The disease is most common among women 20 to 24 years old, and men 35 to 39 years old. In 2006, the highest incidence of syphilis (around 65%) was from men who have sex with men.
How Is Syphilis Transmitted?
Syphilis can be transmitted through vaginal, anal and oral sex, a result of direct contact with a syphilis sore. It can also get passed through sharing of infected needles and blood transfusion. Transmission of syphilis by close, non-sexual contact with a person who has an exposed lesion is possible, but extremely rare.
There are no medical evidence to suggest that syphilis can be passed on by sharing toilet seats, bathtubs, clothing, or other inanimate objects (with the expection of sex toys).
Congenital syphilis is the transmission of the syphilis from mother to child as the baby passes through the birth canal. It occurs in 1/3 of all cases of infected expectant mothers. The extent of damage depends on the stage of the mother’s infection. At its worst, syphilis can cause miscarriage, stillbirth and even a disease passed from mother to the newborn baby called congenital syphilis.
How Do I Know If I Have Syphilis?
Syphilis has earned the nickname “the great imitator” because its symptoms are similar to a number of infectious and non-infectious diseases. Most people don’t show symptoms for years after contracting the disease. For this reason, the best way to know if you have syphilis is to get a laboratory test.
How Long Should I Wait To Get Tested For Syphilis?
Any sexually active men and women should make testing for Syphilis or any other STDs a regular routine. The window period for syphilis testing is 2 to 12 weeks after any sexual contact to know if you have been infected.
Syphilis Symptoms In Men and Women
The signs and symptoms of syphilis are similar in both men and women and the disease progresses through 4 stages: primary, secondary, latent and tertiary.
At the primary stage, bacteria enter the body and multiply at the site of infection. Within 10 to 90 days (the average is 21 days), an infectious chancre or ulcer develops. The sore or chancre can appear on the penis or scrotum in males; the vagina in females; or the anus, lips, or tongue in either sex. These ulcers are often painless and heal on their own, but without treatment, the infection remains.
The secondary stage happens a few weeks after the healing of chancre, and is characterized by hyper-pigmented non-itchy skin rashes that show up in the palms and soles of the feet, but can later on spread to other areas.
Other symptoms of syphilis in the secondary stage include:
- Sore throat
- Hair loss
- Swelling of the lymph nodes
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle aches
- Joint pain
- Wartlike lesions in the genital area
Infected individuals who in this stage are extremely infectious to their sexual partners. During this stage, the infection can be transmitted sexually (through vaginal, anal and oral sex) or through nonsexual contact, such as through a break in the skin.
In the latent stage of syphilis, the disease transitions from acute to chronic. An estimated 2/3 of people with untreated syphilis would remain in the latent stage of the disease for the rest of their life. In this stage, the primary and secondary symptoms disappear although the infection remains in the body.
In tertiary or late syphilis, the infection invades the central nervous system, cardiovascular system, eyes, skin, muscles, bones, and internal organs. Gummas, or soft, tumor-like lesions, may appear in skin and other tissues.
Other signs and symptoms of the late stage of syphilis include:
- Gradual Blindness
- Heart Problems
- Difficulty coordinating muscles
- Joint Problems
How Is Syphilis Diagnosed? How To Test For Syphilis?
Syphilis can be diagnosed through the microscopical study of a sample of the syphilis sore. The illness may also be diagnosed through a blood test which test for syphilis antibodies. If the doctor suspects the disease has infected the nervous system, then a sample of spinal fluid may also be tested for the disease.
In the United States, it is common for expecting women to be tested for syphilis during a routine prenatal checkup.
Syphilis Treatment – How Is Syphilis Treated?
Parenteral penicillin G is the antibiotic of choice for all four stages of Syphilis. It is usually administered with a single injection shot of penicillin. Erythromycin and tetracycline may also be used for pregnant patients. If an infected woman is treated during her first 4 months of pregnancy, the unborn baby is very unlikely to be born with syphilis.
If Syphilis Is Not Treated?
It’s important that the syphilis bacteria are arrested immediately, as their spread can cause systemic diseases and even death. Approximately 80% of deaths from syphilis occur because of the spread of the infection to the cardiovascular system, while 20% comes from the spread of the infection to the central nervous system.
The genital sores from syphilis also increase the risks of contracting HIV if exposed.
Can Syphilis Be Cured?
Yes. Early screenings plays a very important role as individuals who are treated early while been infected with syphilis in the early stages often recover without any long term consequences. However it’s important to note that antibiotic can’t reverse the damage already done to the body. This means that individuals in the later stages of syphilis who developed organs complications will have to seek a longer course of medical attention for the systemic impact of the infection, and may even have to be hospitalized.