Syphilis is caused by a spirochete which enters the body through the mucous membrane. It can be congenital or sexually transmitted infection. In the last decade of the 15th century it was a major epidemic in Europe, succeeding the return of Columbus from America. Today syphilis is transmitted through sexual contact and exchange of blood, as in sharing of drug needles.
Syphilis is caused by
, a spirochete. The spirochete penetrates broken skin or mucous membrane in the genitalia, rectum, or mouth during sexual intercourse with an infected person. After entering the body, the organism passes through the body in the blood stream and lymphatic system. In the late 1970’s and early 80’s the number of cases of syphilis in the U.S. increased. Further increases have occurred during the AIDS epidemic, as both infections shared the same pathways of transmission.
Symptoms & Signs
Untreated syphilis passes through three stages. In the primary stage a sore (chancre) appears 3 to 6 weeks after exposure and heals in 4 to 8 weeks. The chancre is a painless ulcer with a hard wet base. The base is covered with serum and spirochetes. These ulcers usually develop on the genitals, anus, mouth, rectum or fingers. The secondary stage is from 6 to 12 weeks after infection. A transient or recurrent rash may appear. In Caucasians the rash is a round, pinkish red spot. In Afro-Americans the rash appears darker than the normal skin. Accompanying the stage the infected person may suffer headaches, aches and pain in the bones, loss of appetite, fever and fatigue. The secondary stage may last for a year. The latent stage can last a few years or the duration of the person’s life. During this time, the infected person may appear normal. During the tertiary stage (which commences 10 years after the infection), there is a possibility that the aorta can be affected and an aneurysm develop. Syphilis in the tertiary stage can cause brain damage and general paralysis.
Penicillin is used to treat the disease. Early infections can be cured by a single large injection. Later forms of syphilis requires a larger course of treatment. Organs that are damaged because of the disease cannot be repaired.
A monogamous relationship can help prevent spread of the infection. Condoms offer some measure of protection. Syphilis is only infectious in the primary and secondary stages but not in the latent and tertiary stages.