Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacteria called Treponema pallidum. But it’s not only through sexual intercourse that this highly contagious disease can be spread. It can also be passed from one person to another through prolonged kissing, oral sex and other forms of close bodily contact.
A pregnant woman can also pass down this disease to her baby. Called congenital syphilis, this can cause abnormalities or death to the child. Contrary to popular misconception, this disease can be obtained from toilet seats, bath tubs, eating utensils, clothing, swimming pools and door knobs.
This sexually transmitted disease used to be a major threat to public health. It used to cause long-term ailments like brain damage, arthritis and blindness. But when the antibiotic penicillin was developed in the late 1940s, cases of syphilis dropped dramatically. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), cases reached an all-time low since 1941.
Syphilis develops in three distinct stages. The first stage is the early or primary syphilis. During this phase, people infected with the bacteria will develop one or several sores that resemble bug bites. These are large, round and often, painless. They appear on the genitals and around the mouth from 10 to 90 days after exposure. These can heal without leaving any scar after six weeks.
The second stage sets in six weeks to six months after exposure. It can last for about one to three months. This secondary stage is characterized by “copper penny” rashes that typically develop on the palms and soles. Different-looking rashes appear on the other parts of the body. In some cases, they may even look like the ones caused by other diseases.
Other than these, people who are in the secondary phase have moist warts in the groin, white patches inside the mouth and swollen lymph glands. These signs are accompanied by fever and weight loss. Like the first one, it can go away without any treatment.
The third stage is the tertiary syphilis. If syphilis is not treated, it can progress to a more serious and debilitating stage that affects the heart, brain and nerves. This phase of the disease can lead to serious health problems such as paralysis, dementia, deafness, blindness and impotence. At times, it can also be fatal.
Apart from these three distinct stages of syphilis, there’s also that stage that is called latent syphilis. In this stage, the infection lies dormant or inactive so the person who has the infection will not experience any symptom.
Diagnosis is done through a blood test that can be done at the doctor’s office or public health clinic. If there is a sore, the doctor will scrape from this and send it to the laboratory for microscope examination to determine if there is the presence of the syphilis-causing bacteria.
If you are infected with syphilis, a single dose of penicillin is usually what it takes to destroy the bacteria and treat the problem. Tetracycline and doxycycline are alternatives given to those who are allergic to this antibiotic.