Syphilis is a sexually transmitted bacteria infection that was devastating before the discovery of antibiotics. The symptoms of syphilis vary greatly from person to person.
The signs of this infection can resemble many illnesses, which has earned syphilis the nickname The Great Simulator. Untreated, syphilis can progress quietly for decades, causing serious complications.
What is syphilis?
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted bacteria infection that is very common in developing countries. Since the 1990s, this highly contagious disease has reappeared in industrialized countries, particularly among homosexual men who represent 80% of cases in 40% of affected people.
In the absence of treatment, serious complications appear after 10 to 30 years: rupture of large blood vessels, neurological or psychiatric disorders, destruction of organs, or even death.
What are the symptoms of syphilis?
After contamination, the patient notices one or more red spots on his genitals, in the anus, or at the back of his throat. This pimple develops into a non-painful ulcer which can last for one to two months.
A few weeks after the appearance of the ulcer, the patient complained of a flu-like syndrome. Patches or redness may appear on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Sometimes neurological disorders are present: meningitis, and paralysis of parts of the face, for example.
Causes Of syphilis
In almost all cases, syphilis is transmitted through sexual contact. It can be transmitted during oral or anal sex, and sometimes even through kissing.
Syphilis manifests itself as a painless ulcer on the part of the body that has been in contact with the infected person. This ulcer slowly releases a clear fluid that contains many syphilis bacteria.
If this liquid comes into contact with nonintact skin or a mucus membrane (such as the inside of the vagina), it risks causing the formation of a new ulcer, Thus transmitting the infection.
These initial lesions are not painful and are often located in unseen areas of the body, so the person may transmit syphilis without knowing it.
When babies are born with this disease, such a condition is known as congenital syphilis. This can cause serious health problems for the baby, including the death of the unborn baby.
Congenital syphilis over the year is on the increase. All pregnant women should be tested for syphilis to treat the infection if necessary.
Diagnosis Of syphilis
Syphilis is easy to diagnose in the primary or secondary stage when an ulcer is visible. The sample from this ulcer provides a sufficient quantity of bacteria for microscopic analysis.
Otherwise, there is a series of blood tests that can confirm the diagnosis. This analysis will be carried out after the treatment to confirm its effectiveness.
What tests are needed to diagnose this STI?
If you experience suggestive symptoms, consult a doctor. If he thinks it’s necessary, he will order a serological blood test to look for antibodies against the syphilis bacteria.
This first test called TPHA (Treponema Pallidum Hemagglutination Assay) allows us to know if the patient has been in contact with syphilis in the past. However, it does not specify whether the patient is still affected currently, as explained by most scientists.
VDRL or Venereal Disease Research Laboratory is hence conducted if the first test fails to ascertain the presence of syphilis.
If this second test is negative, the syphilis is not active but can still progress to tertiary syphilis, so there will still be treatment. If this test is positive, syphilis is active (and potentially contagious) and treatment is then necessary.
Treatment and prevention
Penicillin, given in the form of long-acting benzathine penicillin G, is used to treat all stages of syphilis. Despite 60 years of use, the syphilis bacteria has not yet developed resistance to the original antibiotics.
In the case of primary syphilis, a single injection (usually divided into doses, one in each buttock) is enough to permanently cure the disease that once claimed so many lives.
Secondary syphilis and latent syphilis are treated the same way. Most people with infectious syphilis, especially those in the secondary stage, suffer side effects from the first treatment. This reaction manifests itself as a sudden fever, accompanied by headache, sweating, and sometimes a rash.
Penicillin eliminates the effect of the contagion in a day or two and cures syphilis in a week or two. However, the patient must wait until he has completed the treatment before having sexual relations.
In the case of a person allergic to penicillin, it may be necessary to undergo penicillin desensitization treatment or another antibiotic may be administered.
Tertiary syphilis is also treated using penicillin injections. The treatment required is usually one injection per week for 3 weeks. Even if it does not destroy all the bacteria hidden in the body, it usually prevents the formation of other relations. However, there is no way to repair already damaged organs.
You must attend your follow-up appointment with your doctor. Even if you have received antibiotics, some treatments may not work. Your doctor will do a blood test to make sure the antibiotics have worked and the bacteria is no longer present.
The best way to avoid this complication and syphilis itself is to practice protected sex
Using a condom correctly is a good basic precaution, but syphilis is not only transmitted during vaginal sex. Any oral-genital or even mouth-to-mouth contact is enough to transmit infection.
The only real way to reduce risk is to limit the number of sexual partners you have and choose them wisely, ask them to be tested for syphilis (and other STIs). If you have syphilis, you should tell your sexual partners so that they can be tested and possibly treated.
In 40% of affected people, serious complications appear after 10 to 30 years: rupture of large blood vessels, neurological psychiatric disorders, and destruction of organs.
This complication, also called tertiary-stage syphilis, can lead to death. Syphilis also exposes you to an increased risk of infection by HIV/AIDS via the lesions caused by this infection (risk three to five times higher).
During pregnancy, syphilis can be passed from mother to fetus. The risk of transmission is approximately 70% in early syphilis and 10% in late syphilis. Complications for the fetus and unborn child are frequent and extremely severe.
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- Syphilis: CDC fact sheet (detailed). (2022).
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