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Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by a bacteria, and there is an increase among Men Who Have Sex with Men (MSM) in Oklahoma City. It has often been called "the great imitator" because so many of the signs and symptoms are indistinguishable from those of other diseases.
How do you get syphilis?
Syphilis is usually passed from person to person through direct contact with a syphilis sore during oral, anal, or vaginal sex. Because syphilis sores can be hidden in the mouth, rectum or vagina, it may not be obvious that a sex partner has syphilis. A pregnant woman can also transmit syphilis to her unborn baby.
What are the signs and symptoms of syphilis?
Symptoms are easy to miss, and easy to mistake for something else. Even if you don't notice symptoms, you can still have syphilis. Each stage of syphilis looks different.
The first symptom of syphilis is a raised sore called a chancre. It usually shows up on the genitals, mouth, or rectum one to three weeks after exposure. The sore is painless but DON'T IGNORE IT! It can last for several weeks and go away by itself. When the sore goes away, it doesn't mean that syphilis is gone. Without treatment, it will progress to the next stage. Click here to view photos of chancres.
This stage usually starts with a reddish-brown, spotted rash on one of more areas of the body. Most often the rash appears on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet. It can also show up elsewhere on the body. The rash usually does not itch. Sometimes it's very subtle. The rash can appear as the chancre is healing or many weeks after the chancre has gone away. It may come and go for up to two years. Other symptoms may include swollen lymph nodes, fever, fatigue, patchy hair loss, weight loss, and headache. These symptoms usually last from 2 to 6 weeks and will clear up on their own. If not treated, syphilis will still be present. Click here to view photos of syphilis rashes.
The latent stage of syphilis begins when secondary symptoms go away. During this stage there are no signs or symptoms. The infection can be detected only by a blood test. A relapse of secondary syphilis can occur during the first two years of latency. If not treated, latent syphilis continues for life and may progress to the final stage.
About one-third of people who don't get treated suffer serious damage to the brain, nervous system, heart, or other organs. Late syphilis can cause paralysis, dementia, blindness, deafness, heart failure, and even death. Treatment at this stage will cure the disease and stop future damage, but it cannot repair or reverse damage that has already occurred.
How is syphilis diagnosed?
A blood test is used to determine whether someone has syphilis. Shortly after infection occurs, the body produces syphilis antibodies that can be detected by an accurate, safe, and inexpensive blood test. A low level of antibodies will likely stay in the blood for months or years even after the disease has been successfully treated. Because untreated syphilis in a pregnant woman can infect and possibly kill her developing baby, every pregnant woman should have a blood test for syphilis.
What is the link between syphilis and HIV?
Genital sores (chancres) caused by syphilis make it easier to transmit and acquire HIV infection sexually. There is an estimated 2- to 5-fold increased risk of acquiring HIV if exposed to that infection when syphilis is present.
Ulcerative STDs that cause sores, ulcers, or breaks in the skin or mucous membranes, such as syphilis, disrupt barriers that provide protection against infections. The genital ulcers caused by syphilis can bleed easily, and when they come into contact with oral and rectal mucosa during sex, increase the infectiousness of and susceptibility to HIV. Having other STDs is also an important predictor for becoming HIV infected because STDs are a marker for behaviors associated with HIV transmission.
What is the treatment for syphilis?
Syphilis is easy to cure in its early stages. A single intramuscular injection of penicillin, an antibiotic, will cure a person who has had syphilis for less than a year. Additional doses are needed to treat someone who has had syphilis for longer than a year. For people who are allergic to penicillin, other antibiotics are available to treat syphilis. There are no home remedies or over-the-counter drugs that will cure syphilis. Treatment will kill the syphilis bacterium and prevent further damage, but it will not repair damage already done.
Because effective treatment is available, it is important that persons be screened for syphilis on an on-going basis if their sexual behaviors put them at risk for STDs.
Persons who receive syphilis treatment must abstain from sexual contact with new partners until the syphilis sores are completely healed. Persons with syphilis must notify their sex partners so that they also can be tested and receive treatment if necessary.
Will syphilis recur?
Having syphilis once does not protect a person from getting it again. Following successful treatment, people can still be susceptible to re-infection. Only laboratory tests can confirm whether someone has syphilis. Because syphilis sores can be hidden in the vagina, rectum, or mouth, it may not be obvious that a sex partner has syphilis. Talking with a health care provider will help to determine the need to be re-tested for syphilis after being treated.
How can syphilis be prevented?
The surest way to avoid transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis, is to abstain from sexual contact or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected.
Avoiding alcohol and drug use may also help prevent transmission of syphilis because these activities may lead to risky sexual behavior. It is important that sex partners talk to each other about their HIV status and history of other STDs so that preventive action can be taken.
Genital ulcer diseases, like syphilis, can occur in both male and female genital areas that are covered or protected by a latex condom, as well as in areas that are not covered. Correct and consistent use of latex condoms can reduce the risk of syphilis, as well as genital herpes and chancroid, only when the infected area or site of potential exposure is protected.
Transmission of an STD, including syphilis cannot be prevented by washing the genitals, urinating, and/or douching after sex. Any unusual discharge, sore, or rash, particularly in the groin area, should be a signal to refrain from having sex and to see a doctor immediately.