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Q. What is syphilis?

A. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by a bacteria (Treponema pallidum). The disease proceeds via four stages as the bacteria makes it's way to different organs in the body. The early symptoms of syphilis can be very mild during the early stages; later, when syphilis is no longer contagious,untreated syphilis can cause serious heart abnormalities, mental disorders, blindness, other neurological problems, and death. There is growing concern about the increased susceptibility to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, for those in the early stages of syphilis, if they have sex with someone infected with HIV.

Q. How is syphilis spread and how can I avoid it?

A. The bacterium spreads from the sores of an infected person to the mucous membranes of the genital area, the mouth, or the anus of a sexual partner; it can also pass through broken skin on other parts of the body. The syphilis bacterium is very fragile and is rarely, if ever, spread by contact with objects such as toilet seats or towels. An infected pregnant woman can pass the bacterium to her unborn child, who may be born with serious mental and physical problems as a result of this infection. The most common way to get syphilis is through sexual intercourse with an infected individual. As is the case for other STDs, high risk factors for contracting syphilis include having multiple sex partners, having sexual relations with an infected partner, having a history of STDs, and not using condoms. You can protect yourself from contracting syphilis by avoiding contact with infectious sores and other infected tissues and body fluids of syphilitic individuals. As with many other STDS, likelihood of infection is reduced with limiting the number of sex partners and using condoms during sexual intercourse. Scientists are also working on a vaccine.

Q. Could I tell if a partner has syphilis?

A. The first symptom of primary syphilis is a sore called a chancre ("shan-ker"), which can appear within 10 days to 3 months after exposure. Chancres usually develop on the part of the body exposed to the bacteria, such as the penis, the vulva, or the vagina, as well as the cervix, tongue, lips, or other parts of the body. Because the chancre is ordinarily painless and sometimes occurs inside the body, it may go unnoticed. The next stage of syphilis is marked by a skin rash that appears anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks after the chancre appears, sometimes accompanied by symptoms like mild fever, fatigue, headache, sore throat, as well as patchy hair loss, and swollen lymph glands throughout the body.

Syphilis has sometimes been called "the great imitator" because its early symptoms are similar to those of many other diseases. There are three ways to diagnose syphilis: a doctor’s recognition of its signs and symptoms, microscopic identification of syphilis bacteria and blood tests. A combination of these approaches allows clinicians to detect syphilis and determine the stage of infection.

Q. Is syphilis particularly harmful to women?

A. Pregnant, infected women untreated for syphilis often pass the bacteria to their unborn children, resulting in stillbirth (1 in 4) or in an infected infant (40-70 percent). The effects of syphilis on infants include skin sores, rashes, fever, jaundice, anemia, and various deformities, along with weakened or hoarse crying sounds and swollen liver and spleen. Testing and treatment early in pregnancy is the best way to prevent syphilis in infants and should be a routine part of prenatal care.

Q. Is there a cure for syphilis?

A. Syphilis is usually treated with penicillin or other antibiotics. In all stages of syphilis, proper treatment will cure the disease, but in late syphilis, damage already done to body organs cannot be reversed.

Q. Is there any connection between syphilis and the nervous system?

A. About 3 to 7 percent of persons with untreated syphilis develop neurosyphilis, when the bacteria invade the nervous system during the early stages of infection. There may or may not be symptoms like headache, stiff neck, fever from tissue inflammation, seizures, or even symptoms of stroke with resulting numbness, weakness, or visual complaints.