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Syphilis (Treponema Pallidum Infection)

About Syphilis

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease that occurs as a result of an infection with Treponema pallidum. Although it is usually transmitted via sexual contact, babies can contract the disease during birth from infected mothers. The symptoms of the disease depend upon the stage of the infection.

At an early stage there is appearance of painless lesions at the site of infection, usually on the genital area but with time the infection spreads and can affect almost every system of the body. Unprotected sex is the most common risk factor for developing syphilis. It has been a disease that has plagued mankind for centuries and was incurable. Following the discovery of penicillin, syphilis can be easily managed. Currently the rate of infection with syphilis has increased in many countries often in combination with HIV infection.

Stages of Syphilis

Syphilis progresses through three different stages known as :

  1. Primary syphilis
  2. Secondary syphilis
  3. Tertiary syphilis

There is an symptomatic period known as latent syphilis that occurs between secondary and tertiary syphilis. Primary syphilis is characterized by mild symptoms and if the condition is treated at this point with appropriate antibiotics, it most likely will not progress any further. Tertiary syphilis is the most severe stage and may end with death. Children born to  mothers with untreated syphilis suffer from congenital syphilis.

Syphilis Symptoms

The symptoms of syphilis usually appears in stages. Often the symptoms of different stages may overlap or may not follow the same order. In some instance, syphilis patients do not notice any symptoms until complications arise years after infection. The symptoms of the different stages of syphilis are as follows :

  • Primary syphilis characterized by the appearance of small painless lesion usually on the genital area known as a chancre. Often people infected with syphilis develop a single chancre but there may be several lesions at this stage. The lesions usually heal within 6 weeks or so. Many people may not be aware of the lesions as they are painless and do not typically itch.
  • Secondary syphilis is characterized by the appearance of a rash beginning on the trunk and gradually covering the entire body, even involving the palms and soles. There may be associated fever, generalized weakness, swollen neck glands, sore throat and other symptoms. Usually these symptoms disappear within weeks but may recur at frequent intervals.
  • Latent syphilis is a stage when there is no apparent symptoms for years.
  • Tertiary syphilis is also known as late syphilis. About 15 to 30% patients suffering from syphilis without receiving any treatment will enter the tertiary phase where there is widespread damage to the eyes, brain, heart, liver, joints and other vital organs.
  • Congenital syphilis is characterized by the appearance of a rash on the palms and soles, deafness, tooth deformity and mental retardation.

Causes of Syphilis

Syphilis is disease caused by Treponema pallidum and transmitted mainly through sexual contact. The bacteria enter the body through cuts or abrasions on the mucous membrane of the genital area, rectum or mouth. The disease is contagious during primary, secondary and the early latent period. Syphilis can also be transmitted from an infected mother to the baby during pregnancy or birth.

Contact with personal items of the infected person and sharing utensils, toilets or bathtubs with the infected person do not lead to infection. Previous infection with syphilis does not provide any immune from future syphilis infection.

Risk factors

  • Unprotected sexual contact.
  • Multiple sexual partners.
  • Suffering from other sexually transmitted infections like HIV.
  • Substance abuse and alcoholism as there is a greater chance of risky sexual behavior.

Syphilis Treatment

Syphilis can be treated but patients need to seek treatment early before complications develop. Penicillin is the drug of choice for treating syphilis even in pregnant women. Patients allergic to syphilis are prescribed other antibiotics that are known the be effective in destroying Treponema pallidum. It is important that syphilis patients be educated about the dangers of risky sexual behavior and be monitored for HIV infection.


Posted by in Infections and Infestations

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