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Sexually Transmitted Diseases Guide

Facts About Syphilis - A Sexually Transmitted Disease Epidemic


Updated May 13, 2014

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are among the most common causes of illness in the world. In some populations, one sexually transmitted disease, syphilis is at epidemic proportions. In fact, sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis increases the risk of HIV. In the case of syphilis, the open sores caused by this sexually transmitted disease makes an ideal portal for HIV to enter the body. The following pages talk about the four most common sexually transmitted diseases.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases Fact Sheets

The Link Between STDs and HIV

Facts About Syphilis

Syphilis was first described in the sixteenth century. In industrialized countries syphilis declined during the latter half of the nineteenth century. However, in these same countries, there was a sharp rise in incidence of this sexually transmitted disease after World War I. But once again, following World War II the incidence fell rapidly, coinciding with the availability of improved diagnostic tests and antibiotics. In some industrialized countries syphilis began to rise again in the 1960s and has been increasing steadily since.

This is What a Syphilis Rash Looks Like

Controlling Syphilis

Syphilis is the classic example of a Sexually transmitted disease which can be successfully controlled by public health measures:

  • a simple, highly sensitive diagnostic test is available and allows for early diagnosis
  • highly effective antibiotics are available to treat acute and chronic infection

    Important Information! - If syphilis is left untreated it can cause nerve damage, arterial wall damage, mental disorientation, and eventually death.

  • resistance to the antibiotics has not developed meaning they will be effective in most people.

Prevent STDs By Using Condoms

How Do People Contract Syphilis??

Syphilis is caused by a bacteria; specifically, a motile (able to move) spirochete (corkscrew shaped bacteria) known as Treponema pallidum. The spirochete is passed from person to person sexually; during oral, anal and vaginal sex. Syphilis causes open sores primarily on the penis, anus, and vagina. Contact with those sores during oral, vaginal, or anal sex allows for the transfer of the spirochete sexually from one person to another.

Using a Condom the Right Way

In addition to being sexually transmitted, syphilis can be passed from a pregnant woman to her unborn baby. The spirochete that causes syphilis can cross the connection between fetus and mother (the placenta) infecting the fetus. Syphilis infection of an unborn fetus can result in spontaneous abortion, stillbirth, or death of the fetus while in the mothers womb. For those babies that make it to delivery and survive, birth defects are common.

What are the Symptoms of Syphilis?

Syphilis has been call an "imitator" its symptoms are often confused for the symptoms of other conditions and diseases. People with syphilis can go years without symptoms at all. In fact, in the early stages of the disease, if there are syphilis sores, they may go unnoticed. These two characteristics of syphilis mean most infections occur between people who are unaware of their syphilis infection.

The Three States of Syphilis Infection

  • Primary Stage
    Typically, during this stage a single sore erupts on the genitals, vagina, or anus. Usually this occurs about 10 to 90 days after infection. The round painless sore typically appears at the point where syphilis entered the body. This sore will last from 3-6 weeks and heals without treatment. However, treatment is suggested because without it, the syphilis can enter the secondary stage.

  • Secondary Stage
    The secondary stage of syphilis is characterized by:

    • mucous membrane lesions
    • a red rash on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet that does not itch
    • fever
    • swollen lymph nodes
    • sore throat
    • hair loss
    • weight loss
    • muscle aches
    • fatigue

    With or without treatment, the symptoms of secondary syphilis will heal. But as is the case in the primary stage, if no treatment is given the infection can progress to the late stage.

  • Late Stage
    This stage is also known as the "hidden stage", starting when the symptoms of the secondary stage have resolved. It's this stage that untreated syphilis can cause damage to internal organs, the central nervous system, and to bones and joints. In some cases, death can occur. For this reason, treatment of syphilis is important regardless of what stage of the infection a person is in.

How is Syphilis Treated?

In it's early stages, syphilis is easily treated with a single injection of penicillin or similar antibiotic if a penicillin allergy exists. As the stages of penicillin progresses, the treatments are for a longer period of time and are more invasive (e.g. intravenous versus intramuscular injection).

Important Fact!
Having syphilis once and being successfully treated does not protect the person from future infections. For this reason, safer sex precautions need to continue and regular testing is a must.

Page 2 - A Guide to Gonorrhea

Women Take Control - Use a Female Condom


Centers for Disease Control, "Syphilis - CDC Fact Sheet"; 1 May 2004.

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