What is syphilis?
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is spread through anal, oral, and vaginal sex. An infected individual spreads the Treponema pallidum bacterium, which enters the body through the vagina, anus, or mouth. It cannot be spread through sharing utensils, clothing, or restroom surfaces with someone who has been infected.
Once the infecting bacteria enters the body, it progresses through stages of infection which are detailed below:
- Primary syphilis: This first stage of infection occurs within 2-3 weeks after exposure. The first sign of infection is usually a small sore that appears on the genitals or mouth called a chancre. Some people only develop one of these sores, while others develop several. A chancre is usually painless and may be undetectable if it appears in the anus or vagina. This sore will go away within a few weeks on its own.
- Secondary syphilis: After several weeks of the chancre healing, a rash will begin to appear on the torso or on your hands and feet. This rash frequently spreads, resulting in dry and bumpy skin all over the body. During this stage of the infection, you may experience fatigue, muscle aches, fever, and a sore throat.
- Latent syphilis: If syphilis goes untreated, it will move into the latent stage of infection. During this time, you may experience no symptoms, even though you are still carrying the infectious bacteria. Despite not showing signs of the infection for years, the Treponema pallidum bacterium may damage your bones, heart, brain, nerves, and eyes.
- Tertiary syphilis: About ⅓ of individuals who have untreated syphilis progress to the late stage of the infection, known as tertiary syphilis. This occurs after years of infection and results in severe medical conditions such as brain damage, heart disease, nerve damage, mobility loss, vision loss, and tumors.
Pregnant women who have not been treated for syphilis may pass the infection to their babies during birth. This can lead to cause serious - sometimes lethal - health problems for both the mother and child.
Nearly 80,000 cases of syphilis are diagnosed in the United States every year. Risk factors for contracting syphilis include:
- Unprotected sex (not using a condom)
- Sex with multiple partners
- Men who have sex with men
- Are infected with other sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS