Syphilis is a very common bacterial infection, frequently spread through sexual activity. While developing syphilis symptoms might be anxiety provoking and painful, this infection is easily treated with antibiotics. If left untreated, syphilis can be dangerous, causing serious health problems.
Learn more about syphilis symptoms and how the infection is treated.
What is Syphilis?
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease, a bacterial infection caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. While there is a social stigma associated with having an STD, syphilis is actually quite common. In 2015, the CDC reported over 74,000 new cases in the United States. In recent years, the rate of infection has been increasing.
Syphilis symptoms are frequently mild, mistaken for rashes or pimples. One of the most common syphilis symptoms is the syphilitic sore, or chancre, by which the infection is commonly spread. These sores can appear on or around the genitals, both the penis or vagina; inside the vagina; around the anus; inside the rectum; as well as in or around the mouth. As such, syphilis can be contracted by vaginal, oral, or anal sex.
Because syphilis symptoms can frequently be overlooked, it is important to get regular STD tests. By getting regularly tested, you can keep yourself from spreading the bacteria, while avoiding any dangerous complications that come with its later stages.
How is Syphilis Prevented?
Syphilis is commonly spread through sexual activity, whether it’s vaginal, oral, or anal. Because many people show no outward syphilis symptoms, it is important to practice safe sex with your partners. This can involve the use of condoms and dental dams, as well as limiting your number of sexual partners or even abstaining from sex altogether. While abstaining from sex can seem over-the-top to many people, it does not have to be forever. Some people simply abstain from sex until they and their partner can be both be tested for STDs, so they can be certain that they and their partners are free of any sexually transmitted infections.
If you are showing syphilis symptoms, you may also wish to abstain from sex until you can get tested and treated. This can help prevent the bacteria from spreading further. If you are given antibiotics, refrain from sex (vaginal, oral, anal, or otherwise) until you have finished treatment. Having sex before you are finished could result in infection for your partner and re-infection for you.
What Do Syphilis Symptoms Look Like?
Syphilis can be difficult to diagnose on your own, without testing. This is because syphilis symptoms can come and go, or show no symptoms at all. This is one of the reasons syphilis is so common: people aren’t aware they are carrying the bacteria, spreading it from one sexual partner to the next.
When syphilis symptoms are present, they may be very mild. Because of this, people frequently misdiagnose themselves with a rash or acne. If you notice symptoms like this on or around your genitals, it would be wise to get tested for syphilis. While your symptoms may come and go, only antibiotics can effectively remove the infection from your body. Because even though these early stages of syphilis are mild, they can create quite serious complications.
Syphilis Symptoms – Primary Stage
One of the first symptoms that people notice with syphilis are sores (or chancres). These sores are round and painless, though they can can break open, exposing fluids. Because you may only develop one sore at a time, people frequently confuse chancres with pimples. While these sores can look like pimples or ingrown hairs, they are extremely contagious, especially once they are open.
Chancres can develop in a variety of areas on the body, generally around your genitals: the vagina, vulva, penis, scrotum, anus, and occasionally on the lips. Because they are not painful and can develop in hidden places, it can be challenging to even spot a chancre. This is why safe sex practices can be such an important step in preventing infection: You can’t always see that to which you’re exposing yourself.
Chancres develop three to six weeks after infection and tend to last about as long, going away on their own. Remember: Just because a sore goes away does not mean the infection is gone. Syphilis symptoms come and go, but treatment is the only path to health. Without antibiotics, your infection will get worse and you will enter into the secondary stage of infection.
Syphilis Symptoms – Secondary Stage
In the secondary stage, syphilis symptoms can manifest as a rash. This rash can develop on the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet, as well as other parts of your body. These rashes can be difficult to see at times and will not itch. They can can last for weeks at a time, coming and going for as long as two years.
In this stage of syphilis, you may also develop flu-like symptoms: fever, fatigue, sore throat, muscles aches, headaches, and swollen glands, as well as loss of both weight and hair. Again, these symptoms may very well go away on their own, but this doesn’t mean that the infection has cleared. Ignoring your syphilis symptoms beyond the secondary stage will lead to the final, most dangerous stage of the infection.
Syphilis Symptoms – Late Stage
While syphilis can be easy to ignore, with its latent periods and mild symptoms, letting your syphilis symptoms continue can lead to some very serious complications. These can include tumors, cardiovascular problems, damage to your nervous system, mental disorders, and even death.
Syphilis is too preventable, and too treatable, for anyone to reach the late stages of syphilis. If you have syphilis symptoms, get tested. It’s an easy process that can save you a lot of trouble, and it may just save your life.
What Can I Expected When I Get Tested?
Getting tested for syphilis is easy. All that is required is a blood sample, which will be used to look for the antibodies associated with a syphilis infection. Antibodies are a part of your body’s defense system; they’re proteins that are deployed by your body to neutralize harmful bacteria or viruses. Finding syphilis antibodies can indicate that your body has been fighting such an infection and that treatment is necessary.
What Can I Expect from Syphilis Treatment?
If you get tested when you first show signs of syphilis symptoms, treating the STD can be incredibly easy. With a simple course of penicillin (or another antibiotic), you will be back to your old self in no time.
If you are being treated for syphilis, you will also want to talk to your partner(s) about treatment as well. While it can be a difficult conversation to have with your sexual partners, try not to be too embarrassed: syphilis is a very common bacterial infection. Even if your partner has a negative reaction to learning of your infection, in the long run, they will appreciate your honesty and concern for their well-being.
While you are being treated, you should refrain from sexual activity (vaginal, oral, and anal). Even if your syphilis symptoms have gone away, you should abstain from sexual contact, as to not infect (or re-infect) you and your partner.
How Will Syphilis Affect My Pregnancy?
If you find that you may have syphilis symptoms during pregnancy, get tested as soon as possible. STD testing is not a part of your routine exams, so you will need to request it separately. While you and your baby should be fine if the syphilis is detected and treated early, there is a high probability that your baby will be infected if you let the infection go. Half of those mothers with untreated syphilis will pass it on to their babies, resulting in miscarriage, stillbirth, or other serious health conditions.
If you believe that you are experiencing syphilis symptoms, or that you may have been exposed to syphilis, get tested today.