The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by a bacterium.
Reuters Health reports, syphilis has been on the rise in the U.S. since 2000. Planned Parenthood says about 36,000 American women and men become infected each year.
Syphilis is passed through direct contact with a syphilis sore during anal, oral and vaginal sex. The CDC says sores occur mainly on the external genitals, vagina, anus, or in the rectum, but can occur on the lips and in the mouth. It cannot be spread through contact with inanimate objects.
Syphilis doesn’t play nice. Often people who are infected don’t have symptoms for years. But they’re still at risk for serious health complications – including death – if they don’t get treatment.
There are several stages of syphilis.
KidsHealth.org says, in the primary stage, red, firm, and sometimes wet, painless sores, called chancres appear on the vagina, rectum, penis or mouth. Often there is just one sore, but there may be several. Planned Parenthood says it’s particularly contagious when sores are present. The liquid that oozes from them is very infectious. The sore(s) may disappear, but that doesn’t mean the disease has gone away. Without treatment, syphilis progresses to the secondary stage.
During the secondary stage, Planned Parenthood says, syphilis symptoms may come and go for up to two years. They include body rashes on the hands and feet. KidsHealth.org reports, sores sometimes appear on the lips, mouth, throat, vagina and anus, but many people with secondary syphilis have no sores. The CDC adds, in addition to rashes, symptoms may include fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and fatigue. It’s still contagious during this time. Again, without treatment, it can continue to progress.
The CDC reports late and latent stages of syphilis can last for many years. In the late stages of syphilis, the disease may subsequently damage the internal organs, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones and joints. Signs and symptoms include difficulty coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness and dementia. This damage may be serious enough to cause death.
Luckily, the early stages of syphilis are cured with antibiotics. Unfortunately, any damage done by the later stages of syphilis can’t be repaired. And even with successful treatment, people can get re-infected.
The only way to avoid syphilis is abstinence or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner. After that, use a female or latex condom during sexual contact.
Syphilis - CDC Fact Sheet
Syphilis up among minority gay, bisexual men
Reviewed Aug 3, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.
Edited by Shannon Koehle