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What is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection. It is highly contagious and mostly spread by sexual contact, including anal and oral sex. If you are infected, you may not even know that you are infected and may pass the disease on to your partner.

What Causes Syphilis?

Syphilis is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. The most common route of transmission is through cuts in your skin or mucous membranes. Syphilis may spread through infected mothers to their babies during childbirth or pregnancy and is called congenital syphilis.

Syphilis is not spread by using the same toilet seats, hot tubs, eating utensils, bathtubs, or shared clothing or from touching doorknobs or going in swimming pools.

What are the Symptoms of Syphilis?

Some people with syphilis have no symptoms. For some, symptoms may not be obvious and may eventually disappear, but unless you get treated you will remain infected and be able to pass the infection on to sexual partners.

If you have symptoms, they may include:

  • White patches in the mouth
  • Blotchy red rashes that affect the soles of the feet or the palms of the hands
  • Small skin growths that may appear around the bottom (anus) in both women and men and on the vulva in women
  • Sores or ulcers which are small and painless that can appear on the vagina, penis, or around the anus, and also in the mouth
  • Headaches, tiredness, fever, joint pains, and swollen glands in your neck, armpits, or groin

If left untreated, syphilis can cause serious long-term problems as it can spread to the brain or other parts of the body.

How is Syphilis Diagnosed?

Your doctor diagnoses syphilis by performing a thorough physical examination and with the help of a blood test. Your doctor can also diagnose syphilis by testing a fluid sample from an open sore.

Your doctor may order a procedure called lumbar puncture, or spinal tap if they suspect that you have nervous system complications due to syphilis. The procedure involves collecting a sample of cerebrospinal fluid to test for the syphilis bacteria.

Pregnant women are screened for syphilis at around 8 to 12 weeks of pregnancy to prevent the baby from getting infected with congenital syphilis. Congenital syphilis is a fatal condition which can cause severe damage in a newborn.

What are the Treatments for Syphilis?

The recommended treatment for syphilis is antibiotics which can be given in the form of:

  • An injection– you may need 1 injection if you have been infected for less than a year, if you have had syphilis for a long time you may be recommended more doses
  • A course of antibiotics tablets– tablets are recommended if you can’t take an injection which will usually last for 2 or 4 weeks, depending on which stage of syphilis you are diagnosed with

Avoid sexual contact with another person until at least 2 weeks after you complete your treatment to prevent spreading the infection.

How is Syphilis Prevented?

The best way to prevent syphilis is by practicing safe sex. Using a condom is one of the best measures. In addition, it may be helpful to:

  • Use a square of plastic called a dental dam during oral sex
  • Avoid sharing sex toys
  • Avoid sharing needles with an IV drug user

The above measures can also reduce your risk of catching other sexually transmitted infections.