What is Syphilis?
Syphilis is caused by a bacteria which enters the blood stream through the mucous membranes or broken skin. It is then carried to all body organs and tissues.
It usually takes 10 days to 3 months for the symptoms to show up. Some people may not have any noticeable symptoms. People infected with syphilis can spread it to others during sexual intercourse, even if they have no signs or symptoms of the infection.
Syphilis is a reportable disease and must be reported to the Health Unit.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms appear in 3 stages:
- Primary: The first sign is a painless sore (chancre) on the penis, anus, labia, vagina, cervix, throat or lips. It is easy to miss this sign as it heals and goes away in 1-5 weeks. Swollen glands can also be present.
- Secondary: About 6 weeks after the first signs, skin lesions or a rash can appear all over the body, including the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. Sores may also be in the mouth and the genital area. There can also be fever, swollen glands, sore throat, fatigue, headaches and patchy hair loss. This rash is easy to confuse with other skin conditions. These symptoms also go away, even without treatment, but the infection is still present in the blood, organs, and other tissue. With no treatment, the rash may recur over the next 1-2 years. This is a very contagious time.
- Latent: In untreated syphilis, the germs continue to spread to all parts of the body but there are no outward signs of the disease. A blood test will show it is still there. From 3-30 years after the primary infection, serious damage can show up in various body organs such as the heart, large blood vessels, bones, joints, or central nervous system.
How is syphilis diagnosed?
In early syphilis, if a sore is present, a swab can be done. A blood test will show the disease about 1 month after the chancre appears. Blood tests also show whether a person is responding to the treatment. Once you have had syphilis, blood tests may show this for the rest of your life. But, you’ll no longer be at risk for complications, or be able to spread the disease to others.
How is syphilis treated?
Syphilis is best treated in its early stages to prevent serious complications and the spread of the disease to others. Penicillin injections are the first treatment choice. For those allergic to penicillin, certain other antibiotics can be given. Treatment will cure syphilis but cannot reverse any damage already done to internal organs. After treatment, blood tests will show that the disease has been cured and that there are no flare-ups or re-infection. Without treatment, about 33% of those infected develop serious complications later in life.
Are there complications?
If syphilis is treated early there should be no complications. Without treatment or with late treatment, serious damage can occur to the heart, large blood vessels, liver and brain. If not treated, a pregnant woman can pass syphilis to her unborn child. This can cause serious damage to the baby. During pregnancy, all women are tested for syphilis.
How can I protect myself?
- Never have sexual contact with anyone who has a sore(s) in the genital area.
- Use condoms/latex barriers every time.
- Limit your number of sexual partners.
- Have all sexual partners treated as soon as possible. Avoid sexual contact, even with a condom/latex barrier until your doctor says all blood tests are satisfactory.
- You may have to inform partners from as long as two years ago depending on the stage of syphilis. If you prefer, a nurse from the Health Unit can contact your partner(s). Your name will be kept confidential.