What to Do If You Think You Have Syphilis?

What to Do If You Think You Have Syphilis?

According to a 2015 report by the Center for Disease Control, around 15 of every 200,000, or .0075% of individuals in the United States reports contracting syphilis, a rare but potentially devastating sexually transmitted disease.  Left untreated, syphilis can have unalterable and fatal repercussions, but with the proper care and management, is completely treatable.  Syphilis is a bacterial genital ulcerative disease that develops in stages, which are characterized by their symptomatic manifestations, or by their latency.  Syphilis is almost always symptomatic, but symptoms may take months or even years to appear, so it is possible to acquire or transmit the disease without knowledge.

Timing is extremely important in understanding the effects of syphilis, as each stage has its own associated symptoms, appearance, severity, and treatment.  It is crucial to recognize syphilis early on, as it becomes more and more dangerous as time passes, and deadly once it reaches the tertiary (post latent, third symptomatic) phase.  It is also heavily linked with the facilitation of HIV transmission and acquisition.  So, what should you do if you think you might have syphilis?

Understanding Syphilis

Syphilis is a contagious bacterial disease caused by the Treponema Pallidum bacterium, which is transferred via direct, typically sexual, contact with the lesions or bodily fluids of an infected individual.  Syphilis is a phasal disease, as it progresses through specific, sequential stages, with very little variation from person to person.   So, how long does syphilis last?  If diagnosed and treated in the primary or secondary stages, syphilis can be eliminated from the body within days.  If untreated, the disease can last for several decades, usually ending in fatality.  The first stage has the least severe symptoms, while the final stages, if left untreated, can be destructive.  

These stages can progress quickly or take decades to manifest, but how do you know if you have it?  First, we take a look at the symptoms of the syphilitic stages.  

What are the Symptoms and Stages of Syphilis?

The first symptoms of syphilis can occur from as soon as 10 days to as long as 3 months after acquisition.  The average onset of syphilis symptoms is 21 days.  So, what should you look for?

The Primary Stage

The first, or primary stage of Syphilis is mild and can go by unnoticed, even when symptomatic.  The first sign of syphilis is the appearance of one or multiple chancre sores at the primary site of infection.  Chancre sores are typically firm, round, and painless.  Chancres start as pustules, spots with hard sloping edges with a fluid filled center, capable of bursting when pressure is applied.  Since syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection, chancres can occur on, in, and around the genitals, on the anus, in the rectum, or on the upper and inner thighs.  Syphilis can also be contracted in the mouth or throat, with oral chancres typically located on the pharynx.  The chancre pustule then scabs over to become an ulcer, which takes about 3 to 6 weeks to heal fully, regardless of treatment or lack thereof.  

The Secondary Stage

The secondary stage of syphilis is markedly more severe and may overlap with the healing process of the primary stage.  The first sign of secondary syphilis is a reddish-brown rash upon several areas of the body.  The most characteristic area of syphilitic rash is on the palms and the bottom of feet, but rashes like this and other skin inflammation may occur elsewhere on the body.  These body rashes often resemble those of other diseases and conditions, such as contact dermatitis, acne, chicken pox, etc.  This characteristic has lead to syphilis’s acquisition of the moniker, “The Great Pretender.”  Syphilitic rashes are not usually itchy or painful, and can be so faint that they might not even be noticeable.  Along the mucous membranes and warm, moist areas of the body, such as the mouth, throat, genitals, and anus, and underarms, large white or grey lesions appear.  These are known as Condyloma Lata, which contain vast amounts of infectious Treponema Pallidum spirochetes, making them highly contagious.  These occur in about 33% of syphilitic individuals.  

Other possible symptoms of secondary stage syphilis include:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Hair loss
  • Headaches
  • Myalgia (muscle pain)
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Weight loss

Just as in the primary stage, secondary symptoms will go away on their own accord with or without treatment.  However, if untreated, the infection will progress to the next stage.

The Latent Stage

Around 30% of those infected with syphilis are currently living in the latent, or dormant period of syphilis.  In the latent stage, there are no symptoms.  The bacteria reside in the spleen and lymph nodes, inactive for 3 to 30 years.  If untreated during the latent stage, the disease will develop into the tertiary stage.

The Tertiary Stage

The tertiary stage of syphilis may take years or even decades to arrive, but around 30-40% of all seropositive individuals will progress to it, since the undiagnosed primary and secondary syphilis followed by a long, asymptomatic period can lead to a false sense of security. Though at this stage in the infection the bacteria are typically no longer contagious, their effects on the body can be devastating.  The bacteria living inside have at this point congregated and multiplied in one or more organ systems of the body.  Common infections include those of the central nervous system, the cardiovascular system, the bones, and the skin.  

  • Neurosyphilis
  • Syphilitic infection of the central nervous symptom.  Neurosyphilis may manifest itself in four forms:
  • Asymptomatic
  • This form is mild and has no noticeable symptoms.
  • May take place in any stage of a syphilis infection.
  • Meningovascular
  • Occurs in approximately 10-12% of those infected with neurosyphilis.
  • Damages nerves connected to meninges and arterial walls, may result in:
  • Tabes Dorsalis (syphilitic myelopathy)
  • Degenerative disease that affects the dorsal column of the spinal cord, which are primarily responsible for the senses of spatial awareness, physical touch, and vibration.  Symptoms include:
  • General Paresis (General Paresis of the Insane)
  • Caused my syphilitic meningoencephalitis, a combination of meningitis and encephalitis, manifested by inflammation of the meninges, which protect the central nervous system, and inflammation of the brain.
  • Cardiovascular Syphilis
  • May cause syphilitic aortitis
  • Gummatous Syphilis
  • Gummatous syphilis manifests itself in the growth of gummas, soft, tumor-like growths that form on the skin, the liver, and along the bones.

Further possible complications of syphilis

As with many viral infections, syphilis increases your risk of contracting other diseases.  Syphilis increases your susceptibility to STDs and other complications such as:

  • Chlamydia
  • Gonorrhea
  • HIV/AIDS
  • HPV
  • Trichomoniasis
  • Congenital SyphilisCongenital syphilis, or neonatal syphilis occurs when a pregnant, syphilitic woman transmits the infection to her unborn child.
  • HIVThose infected with syphilis have a 200-500% greater chance of developing HIV

If you or someone you know displays these symptoms and complications, consult immediate help from an urgent care center or doctor near you.

What should you do if you suspect you have Syphilis?

Relax.  

Amateur self-diagnosis can make you feel helpless, scared, and alone, but you do not have to be any of those things.   While you should not ignore the symptoms of syphilis, it is not the end of the world. Syphilis is completely treatable, and with the proper medical attention, seropositive individuals can lead normal, healthy lives.  STDs may be taboo in today’s society, but they are incredibly common, and you should know that you are far from alone.  So, give yourself a break, but…

Get Tested.

If you are a sexually active person, you should get tested for STDs such as syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and HIV on a regular basis, as you can be infected without displaying symptoms and could potentially transmit the disease to others.  However, syphilis is almost always symptomatic, especially in the primary and secondary phases, but due to its potentially decades long latent period, may be forgotten about or ignored. This uncommonly unpredictable spacing means you should be tested regularly, just in case that pimple you once had was more than just a pimple.  Unlike many other STDs, you are still likely to contract syphilis from an infected person, even with proper condom usage.  

If you think you are displaying symptoms of syphilis, visit an urgent care or doctor near you for testing.  

Syphilis Tests

Diagnostic tests are conducted with an array of methods. Syphilis shows up in blood tests and through direct observational methods.

  • Blood Tests (non-treponemal)
  • Blood Tests (treponemal)
  • Direct Testing

Treponemal and non-treponemal tests should be both be given in order to confirm the presence of T. pallidum spirochetes in the patient with 100% accuracy.

For a closer look at syphilis testing, click here.

Testing Positive and Receiving Syphilis Treatment.

Testing is over, and you have received your results.  If you find yourself face to face with a positive syphilis test result, take a deep breath.  You are going to be okay.  It’s common to feel scared, a little embarrassed, and perhaps ashamed, but there are several ways to get help, and you have modern medicine on your side.  

Since syphilis is a bacterial infection, the obvious course of treatment is antibiotic medication.  Which antibiotic the patient receives is dependent largely on what stage they reside in and which symptoms they are experiencing.

So, does syphilis go away after treatment?  

The answer to that question is murky.  If caught and treated early on in the infection, the bacteria are destroyed and its effects can be reversed.  However, if the infection reaches the tertiary stage, the bacteria can be eliminated, but some of the effects will likely be permanent.

  • Early Infections
  • Late Infections

For more information on syphilis treatment, click here.

Syphilis Transmission and Prevention

Syphilis Transmission

Syphilis is transmitted via direct contact with the open sores or bodily fluids of an infected person.  

Syphilis Risk Factors

According to a 2015 CDC report, men are far more likely to contract syphilis in their lifetime than women.  In 2015, men from ages 15-19 experienced 8 cases per 100,000 individuals, compared to women of the same age range, who reported 2.8 cases per 100,000.  That is a 286% higher likelihood of 15-19 year old men to contract syphilis.  Men aged 20-24 reported 35.7 cases per 100,000, compared to women who reported 5.1 cases per 100,000, 700% more likely for men!  

Within the male population, MSM, or men who have sex with men are more likely to contract syphilis than MSW, men who exclusively have sex with women.

Unprotected sex and having multiple partners is also a large risk factor for syphilis.

Preventing Syphilis Transmission

The only way to ensure you do not contract or transmit syphilis is by abstaining from vaginal, oral, and anal sex.  However, if you are sexually active, there are ways to prevent the spreading of syphilis from or to your sexual partner:

  • Maintaining a mutually monogamous sexual relationship with a partner who has been tested for STDs
  • Proper usage of condoms and dental dams during vaginal, anal, and oral sex; even gloves during manual stimulation can help prevent the proliferation of syphilis.

If you think you have symptoms of a syphilis, call or book online with PlushCare to set up a phone appointment with a top U.S. doctor today, and/or order a STD test now.

Doctor on phone
Bryan Welch

Bryan Welch

Bryan is a Philly transplant living in West Hollywood. When not performing with his band, he's writing, obsessing over movies, or building art. Bryan also enjoys regular rowing & healthy cooking.

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