eg. How do you approach an STD test with a new partner?

Syphilis Symptoms

Syphilis is known as “The Imitator” or “The Great Pretender” because its symptoms imitate many other infections. It is a bacterial infection caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. In 2014, the Center for Disease Control reported 63,450 new cases of syphilis. Like other STDs, syphilis can be transmitted through unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sexual contact. Although curable in the early stages, it can cause serious health issues, including death, in later stages.

Syphilis Symptoms

Syphilis symptoms can be divided into three stages: primary, secondary, and latent or late stage syphilis. Initial symptoms generally occur around 21 days after exposure.

Primary Stage Symptoms

In the primary stage of syphilis, the infection may cause no symptoms. If symptoms occur, it is usually in the form of painless sores, which are generally round and firm. A skin rash or swollen lymph glands might also be present. If sores appear, they occur where syphilis has entered the body, including inside the anus or vagina, making them difficult to locate. These sores will last for 3 to 6 weeks, regardless of whether or not treatment occurs. However, if syphilis is not treated, the disease will progress to the secondary stage.

Secondary Stage Symptoms

During the secondary stage, syphilis will manifest as a skin rash. This rash might materialize around the location of initial contact with the disease, but might also occur on other parts of the body. Sometimes the skin rash might manifest as red or brown spots on the palms of the hands or bottoms of the feet. It might also be light and barely discernable to the person infected. Generally, the rash does not cause itching.

In addition to a rash, the following symptoms might also occur:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Sore throat
  • Hair loss
  • Headaches
  • Weight loss
  • Muscle aches

Like primary stage symptoms, these symptoms will clear up with or without treatment. However, if left untreated, syphilis will progress into its the latent and late stages.

Latent and Late Stage Symptoms

The latent stage of syphilis occurs after the symptoms of primary and secondary stage syphilis have passed. The latent stage can last anywhere from months to decades.

Late stage symptoms occur after the latent stage, generally in about 15% of people whose syphilis infection has been left untreated.

In the late stage, serious damage can occur in the internal organs, including damage to the liver, kidneys, brain, joints, bones, and heart. This damage can lead to loss of muscle coordination, dementia, paralysis, numbness, and blindness. If damage is serious enough it can lead to death.

Health Complications

Syphilis can be treated with antibiotics and is easier to treat in the primary and secondary stages of infection. While it can be cured in the late stage, any damage done to internal organs will not be reversed by treatment.

Syphilis is also a serious concern for pregnant women. Pregnant women should be tested for syphilis, and the use of penicillin can prevent mother-to-child transmission of syphilis. If left untreated in pregnant women, the risk of a stillbirth or a child dying shortly after birth increases. Children born to mothers with syphilis must receive treatment shortly after birth to prevent serious health complications.

Back to STD Symptoms

Last updated on March 30th, 2016

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