What is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. This bacterium can remain dormant for a period ranging from two weeks to three months.

If not treated, syphilis poses a significant threat to various body systems, including the circulatory and nervous systems. Pregnant women with syphilis risk transmitting the disease to their unborn children, leading to congenital syphilis.

Symptoms and Stages of Syphilis

Syphilis symptoms occur in three distinct stages:

Stage 1:

The initial infection typically manifests at the transmission site (external genital area, lips, tongue, tonsils, or nipples) with small, painless lesions (2-4mm). These lesions can expand and evolve into larger, oval, flat, and firm wounds. Swollen lymph nodes in the groyne area are also common. Without treatment, these wounds may heal independently, often without other symptoms.

Stage 2:

Occurring 2-3 weeks post-infection, this stage involves the spread of the infection to various lymph nodes (behind ears, groyne, and behind knees) and the bloodstream. This results in body-wide rashes, including on the palms, which are typically raised but not itchy. Other symptoms might include a sore throat, body aches, and hair loss. A blood test at this stage would typically indicate syphilis. Without treatment, the infection enters a dormant state within the body organs, with symptoms disappearing temporarily.

Stage 3:

This latent stage occurs 3-10 years after infection. Symptoms can be severe, including blindness, hearing loss, facial deformities, brittle bones, dementia, or even heart and spinal complications leading to paralysis or death.

Transmission and Risks

Syphilis is primarily transmitted through sexual contact with an infected person, particularly in the disease's early stages. It can also be transmitted from mother to foetus during pregnancy, leading to severe birth complications or congenital disabilities.

Syphilis and Pregnancy

Untreated syphilis in pregnant women can have devastating consequences for the foetus, including in utero death, post-birth death, or lifelong deformities. Infected newborns may suffer from bone, teeth, nasal, facial, and eye deformities, or mental retardation.

Treatment of Syphilis

Early detection is crucial. Seek medical advice if you notice lesions in the genital area, especially after sexual contact. Treatment typically involves high-dose penicillin injections. It's vital to adhere to the treatment schedule, as missing doses can lead to progression to the more severe stages.

Prevention of Syphilis

  • Practise safe sex, including using condoms correctly.
  • Avoid multiple sexual partners, and ensure your partner is tested for STIs.
  • Refrain from drug use and excessive alcohol consumption, as these can lead to risky sexual behaviours.
  • Note: Cleaning the genital area post-intercourse does not prevent syphilis. Seek medical attention if you notice any rashes, wounds, swelling, or unusual discharge.