Syphilis is an STD caused by a bacterium called Treponema palliduium. It’s known as the ‘great imitator’ because its symptoms are hard to distinguish from other STDs.
Syphilis is easy to treat. The unfortunate thing is that most infected people don’t know they’ve got it.
In the long-term, if you’ve got untreated syphilis, you can go blind, lose your mind, and even die.
How do you get syphilis?
You get syphilis by coming into contact with a syphilis sore or rash.
Usually, this is through having unprotected oral, vaginal, or anal sex. Sometimes you can get syphilis by coming into contact with a syphilis rash on an infected person’s body. However, this is unlikely.
Mothers infected with syphilis can also pass it on to their babies.
What are the signs that you’ve got syphilis?
The first signs of syphilis show up within three months of infection. In general, both women and men develop one or more painless ulcers on their genitals. These ulcers are also called chancres.
Chancres heal within three to six weeks without treatment. But you’re still infected with syphilis. Without treatment, it will progress to a secondary stage.
In women, chancres can appear on:
- the vulva
- the cervix
- the anus
- the mouth
In men, chancres can appear on:
- the penis
- the anus
- the mouth
Secondary stages of syphilis
Three to six months after the first signs of syphilis, the disease shows up again.
Secondary signs of syphilis include:
- Flu-like illness including tiredness and loss of appetite
- A non-itchy rash covering the whole body or appearing in patches
- Rough, red, or reddish brown spots on both the palms of the hands and soles of the feet
- Flat, warty-looking growths in the genital areas
- Flat, warty-looking growths around the anus
- Patchy hair loss
As with the first stage of syphilis, these symptoms go away without treatment. However, the infection is still there. Without treatment, the infection silently progresses to its late stages.
Late stages of syphilis
You can have a syphilis infection with no symptoms for 20 to 30 years after first being infected. However, during this time, syphilis is silently damaging your nervous system.
Late signs of syphilis infection include:
- Difficulty with muscle movements
How can you protect yourself from getting syphilis?
1. Always use condoms.
Condoms lower your risk of getting syphilis. However, they don’t eliminate the risk entirely. Syphilis sores or rashes don’t always occur in places where condoms cover or protect, which is why you can get syphilis even if you’re wearing a condom.
2. Get tested with your partner for syphilis.
Whenever you’ve got a new partner, before having sex, go get tested. You or your partner could be infected with syphilis and not know it.
3. If you’ve got unusual discharge, sores, or pain when you urinate get tested for syphilis and other STDs.
These symptoms are signs that something is wrong. Also, let your partner know, so he or she can get tested and treated too. Otherwise, you may pass syphilis back and forth between you and your partner.
Syphilis and pregnancy
If you’re pregnant and infected with syphilis, you can pass it on to your unborn baby. If untreated, your baby may be stillborn or die soon after birth.
To prevent this from happening, in most countries pregnant women are tested for syphilis. If you have a blood test early on in pregnancy, the syphilis test will just be routinely included.
How do you get tested for syphilis?
Syphilis testing in women and men is the same. The doctor will take a blood sample and test it for syphilis. He or she will also check to see if you’ve got sores or rashes that match a syphilis diagnosis.
How do you get rid of syphilis?
Syphilis is easy to cure, especially in the early stages.
You’ll be given an antibiotic injection and/or a course of antibiotic tablets to take. The medication will kill the bacteria, but won’t repair any damage caused by long-term infections. After finishing your treatment, you may be asked to come back again and get tested to see whether the syphilis infection is gone.
Being infected with syphilis once doesn’t make you immune from it for the rest of your life. You can get the disease again, so it’s important to protect yourself from re-infection.