SYPHILIS, A STIGMA.
Syphilis has always terrified humanity. When it was first heard of in Europe in the 15th century though, it was a total mystery. Nobody knew any facts about syphilis or had any idea on how to cure it. People came up with myths to help them understand the awful new disease they called “the great pox.”
But today syphilis is completely curable, especially if it is diagnosed and treated early in the course of the illness.
Syphilis is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum (T. pallidum) that can escalate severely without treatment.
It is treatable in the early stages, however without treatment, it can lead to disability, neurological disorders, and death.
That’s why STD testing is so important — the sooner you know you have syphilis, the faster you can get rid of it.
Syphilis can be kind of confusing because there are a few different stages, and they can overlap or happen around the same time. And there may be times when you have no symptoms at all — but the infection will still be there until you get it treated. Syphilis Symptoms can vary with each stage, and they might not always happen in the same order for everyone.
There are three stages to a syphilis infection that you should be aware of :
Primary, secondary, and tertiary.
1. Primary stage :
- A person with primary syphilis generally has a sore (chancre) or sores at the original site of infection.
- These sores usually occur on or around the genitals, around the anus or in the rectum, or in or around the mouth. These sores are usually (but not always) firm, round, and painless.
- Chancres typically show up anywhere between 3 weeks and 3 months after you get the infection. The sores usually last about 3 to 6 weeks and then go away on their own — with or without treatment.
2. Secondary stage :
- Secondary stage symptoms include rashes on the palms of your hands, soles of your feet, or other parts of your body. The rash can look like rough, red, or reddish brown spots on the palms of your hands and/or the bottoms of your feet. The secondary syphilis rash is sometimes hard to see, and it usually doesn’t itch.
- You may feel sick and have mild flu-like symptoms, like a slight fever, feeling tired, sore throat, swollen glands, headache, fatigue and muscle aches.
- You can also have sores in your mouth, vagina, or anus, and weight or hair loss.
- Secondary stage symptoms (syphilis rash) can last 2 to 6 weeks at a time and may come and go for up to 2 years. They’re similar to other common illnesses, so it can be hard to tell it’s syphilis.
In between the second stage and the late stage, there may be times when your syphilis infection is latent (there are no signs or symptoms at all) for months or even years.
3. Tertiary stage :
- Late stages of syphilis can cause tumours, blindness, and paralysis. It can damage your nervous system (neurosyphilis), brain, eyes ( ocular syphilis) and other organs, and may even kill you.
- The complications from late-stage syphilis can happen 10-20 years after you first get infected, or at any of the stages described above.
Symptoms of neurosyphilis include
- severe headache;
- difficulty coordinating muscle movements;
- paralysis (not able to move certain parts of your body);
- numbness; and
- dementia (mental disorder).
Symptoms of ocular syphilis include changes in your vision and even blindness.
Read: STD Window Period & Incubation
Sexually active people are at risk of contracting syphilis.
Those most at risk include:
- those who have unprotected sex
- men who have sex with men
- those with HIV
- people with numerous sexual partners
Syphilitic sores also increase the risk of contracting HIV.
What is the treatment for syphilis?
Syphilis is easy to cure in its early stages. A single intramuscular injection of long-acting Benzathine penicillin G will cure a person who has primary, secondary or early latent syphilis. Three doses of long-acting Benzathine penicillin G (2.4 million units administered intramuscularly) at weekly intervals is recommended for individuals with late latent syphilis or latent syphilis of unknown duration.
Treatment will kill the syphilis bacterium and prevent further damage, but it will not repair damage already done. Selection of the appropriate penicillin preparation is important to properly treat and cure syphilis.
After you’re treated for syphilis, your doctor will ask you to:
- Have periodic blood tests and exams to make sure you’re responding to the usual dosage of penicillin
- Avoid sexual contact until the treatment is completed and blood tests indicate the infection has been cured
- Notify your sex partners so that they can be tested and get treatment if necessary
- Be tested for HIV infection
Read: Anonymous HIV Testing
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on Syphilis:
a) I’ve been treated. Can I get syphilis again?
Having syphilis once does not mean you will never get infected again. Even after you’ve been successfully treated, you can still be re-infected. Having laboratory tests done can confirm whether you have syphilis. Follow-up testing by your doctor is recommended to make sure that your treatment was successful.
It may not be obvious that a sex partner has syphilis. Unless you know that your sex partner(s) has been tested and treated, you may be at risk of getting syphilis again from an infected sex partner. This is because syphilis sores can be hidden in the vagina, anus, under the foreskin of the penis, or in the mouth.
b) I’m pregnant. How does syphilis affect my baby?
You can give the infection to your unborn baby if you are pregnant and have syphilis. Having syphilis can lead to a low birth weight baby, premature delivery or stillborn (a baby born dead). To protect your baby, you should be tested for syphilis at least once during your pregnancy and receive immediate treatment if you test positive.
An infected baby may be born without signs or symptoms of the disease. However, untreated babies can have health problems such as cataracts, deafness, or seizures, and can die. If not treated immediately, the baby may develop serious problems within a few weeks.
c) How do I know if I have syphilis?
Like all STDs, the only way to know is to get tested. If you notice a sore on your genitals or you’re showing any other signs of syphilis, get checked out by a doctor. Testing is also a good idea if you’ve had unprotected sex or if someone you’ve had sex with has syphilis (even if you don’t notice symptoms). If you’re pregnant, your doctor might recommend that you get tested for syphilis.
In general, people who are sexually active should get tested for STDs about once a year.
How can I make sure I don’t give anyone syphilis?
Syphilis is easily cured, and there are a few ways to make sure you don’t give it to other people. Telling someone you have an STD isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time. But syphilis is really, REALLY common and can be easily cured, so try not to be too embarrassed or stressed out about it.
Tell your past and present sexual partners that you have syphilis, so they can get tested and treated too.
Abstain from having sex with ANYONE until you have completed your treatment and your syphilis sores are completely healed.
You should remind your sex partners to get treated before they have sex with anyone again, including you.
use condoms every single time you have sex after completing treatment.
Fast facts on syphilis
Here are some key points about syphilis.
- It is spread through sexual contact with sores, known as chancres. Shared contact with surfaces like doorknobs or tables will not spread the infection.
- Early treatment with penicillin can cure it.
- Having syphilis once does not prevent a person from contracting it again. Syphilis will not come back after treatment, but it can recur with further exposure to the bacteria.
- Women can pass syphilis to their unborn child during pregnancy, with potentially disfiguring or fatal consequences. Read: STD Symptoms in Women
- The infection can lie dormant for up to 30 years before returning as tertiary syphilis
Syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases may cause some psychological problems and anxiety among infected patients.
No matter what we’re told about sexual health, once we start at it, there is very little rational thought can do to make us stop.
Because of the increased numbers of patients globally, there have been many initiatives to prevent the spread of the disease and there has been a global effort to eradicate the disease.
If you find out that you have syphilis, don’t panic! Visit your nearest health care and get yourself treated early.