Syphilis

What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a chronic STI that begins as a bacterial infection. There are four stages of syphilis infection: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary, each with different signs and symptoms. If left untreated, syphilis can be fatal. It is curable with antibiotics, but treatment may not undo damage that has already been done.

Who is at risk for syphilis?

As syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection, anybody who is sexually active is at risk.

Annual syphilis screenings can reduce a person’s risks of having a syphilis infection that progresses to tertiary syphilis. Syphilis can be detected by blood test as early as 3 weeks, but can remain undetectable for periods of time spanning 3 months.

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How is syphilis transmitted?

Syphilis is highly contagious and spreads through oral, vaginal and anal sex or close body contact, including prolonged kissing. The majority of those infected with syphilis are unaware, passing it along to partners. Pregnant women diagnosed with syphilis can pass the disease to their baby.

How many people are living with syphilis?

Within the U.S., there are several thousand people infected with syphilis. Oklahoma specifically saw an increase of 860% in primary and secondary syphilis cases among women between 2014 and 2018. Our rate increase is higher than the national average and higher than the averages of all neighboring states.

What are syphilis symptoms?

Syphilis symptoms vary based on the stage of the infection.

Primary:

  • You may notice a sore in the location where the syphilis entered your body. There may be one sore or many. These are usually firm, round, and painless, which can make them difficult to detect. The sore will last from 3-6 weeks and will heal whether or not you receive treatment. If you do not receive treatment, then the infection will progress to the secondary stage.

Secondary:

  • The secondary stage usually starts with skin rashes on your hands or the soles of your feet, or with lesions in your mouth, vagina, or anus. Other symptoms include fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and fatigue.
  • Like the primary stage symptoms, secondary stage symptoms will go away regardless of whether you receive treatment. However, if you do not receive treatment, the infection will progress to the latent and possibly the tertiary stages of infection.

Latent:

  • During this stage, you will have no visible signs or symptoms of syphilis. However, you are still contagious, and if left untreated, the infection could progress to the tertiary stage.

Tertiary:

  • Tertiary syphilis is very serious and would occur 10-30 years after your initial infection. At this stage, the syphilis affects your internal organs, including your heart and blood vessels, or your brain and nervous system. It can cause severe damage and lead to death.

Without treatment, syphilis can spread to the nervous system or to the eye in any of the stages listed above. Those symptoms include severe headache, difficulty coordinating muscle movements, paralysis (not able to move certain parts of your body), numbness, dementia (mental disorder), changes in your vision, and even blindness.

Sources:

STD Facts – Syphilis | CDC

Syphilis | Oklahoma.gov

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