What is syphilis infection and how is it spread?
Syphilis is caused by a bacterial infection called Treponema pallidum. The bacteria is passed on when infected lesions come in contact with mucous membrane found inside the genital region or with an abrasion during vaginal, oral, and anal sex, even if there is no sexual penetration. Syphilis bacteria are extremely fragile, they cannot be spread during contact with objects such as toilet seats or towels.
What are the stages and symptoms of syphilis?
There are four stages through which untreated syphilis progresses, each stage with its own unique signs and symptoms: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary (or late). While early syphilis infection is curable with antibiotics, complications that may develop in later stages cannot be reversed with treatment, including serious damage to the brain, heart, nervous system, and even death.
Primary syphilis is marked by appearance of a single, painless sore called "chancre" that maybe raised and can sometimes goes unnoticed. It usually formed within 10-90 days after contact with the bacteria at the site of infection. Its commonly found at the genital area, anus or rarely around the mouth or lips area. The sore can last from 3-6 weeks and will go away with or without treatment. A patient during this stage can pass on the bacteria to other people during sexual activity.
Secondary syphilis is marked by formation of multiple reddish-brown rash that appears on the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet, which normally not itchy. Rashes can also form in other part of the body and inside the oral and genital cavity. You can also get sick with fever, sore throat, headache, joint pain and hair loss. Symptoms of secondary syphilis will clear up with or without treatment, but the disease will still be present if untreated. It will then enter into a latent stage, which has no signs or symptoms. Patient can be well for many years without any problems.
Tertiary or late syphilis is marked by formation of "gumma" which are soft, tumour-like growth forming on the skin, bone, mouth and even internal organ. By this stage, the syphilis has spread to other vital organs such as blood vessels, heart, brain and spine and often fatal.
How do I get tested?
You need to see a doctor for testing. Serological testing can be done from blood test looking for presence of antibody titre for syphilis. This can be divided into treponemal and non-treponemal test.
What are the treatment for syphilis?
Syphilis can be treated with injection of antibiotic called Penicillin into the muscle. Other options of antibiotic can be given for patient with allergy to penicillin. It is recommended that a treated person avoid sex until the sores are healed. Partner need to be checked and treated as well.
Common side-effects of penicillin antibiotic includes nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, headache, rashes and rarely black hairy tongue. Penicillin can cause a serious reaction called Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction that can develop temporarily within one hour and lasted for 24 hours. It caused symptoms such as fever, body ache, headache and fast heart rate due to immune system response from rupturing and death of the bacteria.
Can syphilis be passed onto the baby?
Syphilis can be transmitted during pregnancy or during childbirth from a mother to her infant at childbirth. Untreated syphilis can cause pregnancy-related complications such as stillbirth and miscarriage. Infant with congenital syphilis can have skin rashes, deformed bones, anaemia (low blood count), enlarged liver and spleen, jaundice, brain problems, blindness and deafness.
Do I need to be tested again after treatment?
Yes, usually this is done 6 weeks after treatment to ensure your body is responding to the antibiotic. It may take several months for blood tests to show that syphilis has reduced to an appropriate level. Low enough levels is adequate confirmation of the treatment.