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Syphilis: What is it, symptoms and treatment

Syphilis, also called Lues. It is a disease caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum which, in most cases, is transmitted through intimate contact without the use of a condom. The first symptoms are painless wounds on the penis, anus, or vulva which, if untreated, disappear spontaneously and return after weeks, months to years in their secondary or tertiary forms, which are more severe.

When this infection arises during pregnancy, it can infect the fetus, which contracts congenital syphilis, a worrying condition that can become severe and cause malformation, miscarriage or even death of the baby.

Syphilis is curable and its treatment is done through penicillin injections, guided by a doctor according to the stage of the disease in which the patient is.

Main symptoms

Syphilis can present itself through various symptoms, that usually indicate in which phase of the disease a person is at:

1. Primary syphilis

Primary syphilis is the first stage of the disease, which appears about 3 weeks after infection. The main symptom of syphilis at this stage is the onset of a sore or multiple sores characterized by a small pinkish lump that develops into a reddish ulcer with hardened edges and a smooth bottom covered by a clear secretion.

This ulcer is painless and usually occurs at the site of infection, usually on the genitals, but can also occur in the anal region, mouth, tongue, breasts or fingers.

2. Secondary syphilis

The symptoms of secondary syphilis appear about 6 to 8 weeks after the disappearance of the lesions caused by primary syphilis. At this stage, symptoms affect the whole body such as inflamed arthritis, headache, general malaise, fever, loss of appetite, joint and muscular pain, are common.

This phase usually persists during the first and second year of the disease, occurring new outbreaks that regress spontaneously, interspersed by intervals without symptoms that tend to be more and more lasting.

3. Tertiary Syphilis

After secondary syphilis, if treatment is not done, some people move to the third stage of the disease, which is characterized by larger lesions on the skin, mouth and nose that are hardened and infiltrative, as well as serious heart problems, in the nervous system, bones, muscles, and liver. Some of the more serious symptoms are:

  • Psychiatric disorders, such as dementia, progressive general paralysis or personality changes;
  • Neurological changes, such as exaggerated nervous reflexes or unresponsive pupils;
  • Heart insufficiency or aneurysm and regurgitation of the aorta, the body's main blood vessel.

These symptoms may appear between 10 and 30 years after the initial infection and if the disease was not treated. See more information about syphilis symptoms and photos of each stage.

How to confirm you are infected

There are several methods for the diagnosis of syphilis, and there are some simpler ones in which it is necessary to observe and scrape the wounds to evaluate the presence of the bacterium, useful in the early stages of primary or secondary syphilis, when the bacteria are in great amount.

Blood tests that evaluate the presence of antibodies against the bacteria, such as VDRL or FTA-ABS, can be done after 2 to 3 weeks of infection, very useful for investigating suspicions in people who do not have active lesions.

The collection of cerebrospinal fluid, present in the spinal cord, may be necessary to identify the infection in the nervous system, in cases of suspicion of tertiary syphilis.

How is treatment done

Treatment for syphilis is done with the use of antibiotics such as Penicillin, and the dose and duration depends on the severity and how long have you been contaminated by the disease. The same treatment with penicillin injections is done for pregnant women in order to avoid the contagion of the baby with syphilis.

During the first year of treatment the patient should have blood tests every 3 months to identify the effectiveness of the treatment, and in the second year the tests are done every 6 months.

What is Congenital Syphilis

Congenital syphilis occurs when the pregnant woman has syphilis and transmits the disease to the baby through the placenta. In this case, the baby may develop changes in bones, eyes, ears or teeth, enlargement of the liver and spleen, skin sores, anemia, jaundice, coryza with reddish secretions, mouth sores, nails or difficulty gaining weight. It is also possible that the baby is stillborn or death may occur in childhood due to lung problems.

The diagnosis of congenital syphilis can be confirmed by observation of the bacteria Treponema pallidum in the lesions, body fluids or tissues of the baby, or by the measurement of antibodies in samples of baby's blood or umbilical cord. Treatment is indicated whenever the infection is suspected, either due to changes in the examination, physical symptoms or because the mother did not perform the correct treatment during pregnancy, and consists of injecting Penicillin into the muscle or into the vein, in amounts that vary according to with each case.

How can you catch syphilis

The main form of transmission or contagion of syphilis is through intercourse without the use of condoms. The risk of contamination is even greater when there are lesions or wounds in the vagina or penis, as it facilitates the passage of the bacteria into the blood.

If there are lesions in the mouth or skin, syphilis can also be transmitted by kissing or touching the lesions. In pregnancy, women with untreated syphilis can pass the disease on to the fetus and, in rarer cases, this disease can also be transmitted through contaminated objects, tattoo needles and blood transfusions.

In addition, it is important to remember that as syphilis is transmitted through intimate contact it is possible for the person to become infected and to show symptoms of other types of STDs. Find out which ones are they and how to identify the main STDs

How to prevent 

Prevention of syphilis is done by using condoms in all intimate contacts and by decreasing the number of partners. During treatment, it is recommended not to have intercourse.

In addition, pregnant women should take the test for syphilis during prenatal care, and correctly follow medical treatment so they do not pass on the disease to the baby.

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