Syphilis is an incredibly serious sexually transmitted infection (otherwise known as a sexually transmitted disease, or STD) that has been wreaking havoc on people’s health for centuries. From Henry VIII and Oscar Wilde, to the average man and woman suffering from the infection, Syphilis has caused untold damage over the years to thousands of people old and young, and from every stratum of society.

So, it makes sense that people would want to recognise the signs and symptoms of Syphilis. If you know you have Syphilis, you can get it treated and cured, before it seriously affects your health.

In this blog, we’ll cover what Syphilis is, the various stages the infection takes, and how you can recognise the signs and symptoms so you can get tested.

What is Syphilis?

Syphilis is an infection caused by the Treponema pallidum bacterium. The infection is primarily transmitted through sexual activity, like vaginal, anal, and oral sex, but can also be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact like touching a Syphilitic chancre. Syphilis can also be transmitted by sharing needles for intravenous drug use.

The stages of Syphilis

Syphilis typically progresses through several stages, each with its own set of symptoms. It’s essential to recognise these stages to understand the symptoms of Syphilis that may arise:

Primary stage

This is the initial stage and often starts with the appearance of a painless chancre about 10 days after the initial infection. The chancre is usually a firm, round sore, and appears at the site of infection (genitals, anus, or mouth). The chancre is the first visual symptom that the infection will produce.

This stage of Syphilis usually lasts around 21 days and will progress to the second stage if left untreated.

Secondary stage

In this stage, the infection becomes more systemic and can affect various parts of the body, leading to a wide range of symptoms.

Symptoms may include a rash, often characterised by red or brownish lesions that can appear on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, and other areas. White or grey lesions may also appear in warm and moist areas like the labia or anus, usually at the site of the original chancre.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle aches
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Sore throat

If left untreated, the symptoms that occur in Secondary Syphilis will subside on their own, and the infection will enter the latent stage.

Latent stage

After the secondary stage, Syphilis can enter a latency period where it doesn’t produce noticeable symptoms.

This latency period is what makes Syphilis so dangerous – even though the patient is still infected, they will not show any outward signs of infection, allowing the bacteria to reproduce and damage organ systems over months or years.

Latent Syphilis can last for many years before the final Tertiary stage.

Tertiary Syphilis

If left untreated, Syphilis can progress over years or decades to Tertiary Syphilis, which may affect organs such as the heart, brain, and nerves. It can cause a variety of conditions, such as:

  • Dementia
  • Meningitis
  • Encephalitis
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Blindness
  • Hearing loss
  • Chronic dizziness and difficulty maintaining balance
  • Inflammation of the aorta
  • Blockages of blood vessels in the heart

When a patient reaches the Tertiary Syphilis stage, the damage done by the infection over years can be fatal.

Congenital Syphilis

While Congenital Syphilis is not a stage of a Syphilis infection, it is no less important to know about.

Congenital Syphilis occurs when a mother with untreated Syphilis passes the infection to her baby during pregnancy or childbirth. It can cause rash, fever, liver and spleen problems, and anaemia, among other complications for the baby. Congenital Syphilis in newborns might cause irreversible health problems or death in as many as 40% of all live babies born to women with an untreated infection.

The effects a mother’s Syphilis infection can have on a baby is yet another reason why people who are at risk of contracting Syphilis should get tested early and often.

The importance of early detection

Early detection of Syphilis is crucial for effective treatment and preventing the progression of the disease.

Preventing Syphilis

Avoiding catching Syphilis in the first place is always the best approach.

Safe sexual practices, such as consistent and correct condom use, can significantly reduce the risk of contracting Syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections. Regular STI screenings are also essential, especially if you engage in high-risk behaviours.

Final thoughts

Syphilis may present with various symptoms as it progresses through its stages, which can help alert people to when they need to get tested. While these symptoms can be concerning, early detection and treatment are key to preventing further complications. It is possible to treat and cure Syphilis if it is diagnosed early, and getting tested is a proactive step toward managing it.

If you think you may have been exposed to Syphilis, you should get tested with Better2Know. Our Sexual Health Advisors can help you find the right test and STI clinic to meet your needs so you can get the Syphilis treatment you require.

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