Syphilis transmission usually occurs during vaginal, anal or oral sex when syphilitic sores or patches come into contact with slightly abraded skin or mucous membranes. Women who catch syphilis within a few years before they get pregnant and who fail to get treated often (70 percent) pass syphilis on to their infants. Forty percent of women who acquire syphilis during pregnancy and who go without treatment will lose the child.

Syphilis has been called “The Great Imitator” because so many of the signs and symptoms resemble other diseases. The primary stage of syphilis is usually marked by the appearance of a single sore (chancre), although multiple sores may develop. The chancre is usually firm, round and painless and appears about three weeks after exposure at the spot where the syphilis bacteria entered the body. Left untreated, the chancre heals in 3-6 weeks, but the infection may progress to the secondary stage of syphilis. The secondary stage starts when one or more areas of the skin break into an itch-less rash. Additional symptoms of secondary syphilis may include fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches and fatigue. Tertiary symptoms include incoordination, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness and severe confusion.

Left untreated, secondary syphilis may develop into the tertiary stage resulting in damage to internal organs, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones and joints. The damage can be serious enough to cause death. Primary and secondary syphilis are generally diagnosed with a blood test. The diagnosis of tertiary syphilis usually requires a test on cerebrospinal fluid (ie, fluid that normally surrounds the brain and spinal cord). There are no home remedies or over-the-counter treatments for syphilis; however, a single dose of an antibiotic (usually penicillin) can cure a person who has been infected for less than a year. Larger doses are needed to cure someone who has had it for more than a year. While antibiotics are extremely effective at killing the syphilis bacterium, they will not repair or reverse the damage already caused by the disease.

Even if you use a condom exactly as directed 100 percent of the time when you have sex, you only reduce your chance of getting syphilis from an infected partner by about 30 to 50 percent.3, 4, 5 Syphilis is also easy to transmit through oral sex. In fact, oral sex appears to have played a significant role in syphilis transmission in a number of recent outbreaks.6, 7, 8 Because most infected individuals are unaware that they have syphilis, having a sexual partner who has no symptoms offers no guarantee. If you’ve already been sexually active outside a lifelong mutually faithful relationship (as in marriage), talk to your healthcare provider about getting you and your partner tested for STDs. Abstinence from sexual activity&mdashincluding oral sex&mdashor lifetime faithfulness to one uninfected partner is the only certain way to avoid being infected. Read More at

1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance 2001. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services; September 2002. 2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance 2001 Supplement. Syphilis Surveillance Report. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services; February 2003. 3 Ahmed S, Lutalo T, Wawer M, et al. HIV incidence and sexually transmitted disease prevalence associated with condom use: A population study in Rakai, Uganda. AIDS. 2001;15:2171-2179. 4 Baeten JM, Nyange PM, Richardson BA, et al. Hormonal contraception and risk of sexually transmitted acquisition: Results from a prospective study. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2001;185:380-385. 5 Workshop Summary: Scientific Evidence on Condom Effectiveness for Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) Prevention. July 20, 2001. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services. Available HERE. 6 Cook PA, Clark P, Bellis MA, et al. Re-emerging syphilis in the UK: A behavioural analysis of infected individuals. Commun Dis Public Health. 2001;4:253-258. 7 Poulton M, Dean GL, Williams DI, Carter P, Iversen A, Fisher M. Surfing with spirochaetes: An ongoing syphilis outbreak in Brighton. Sex Transm Infect. 2001;77:319-321. 8 Lacey HB, Higgins SP, Graham D. An outbreak of early syphilis: Cases from North Manchester General Hospital, UK. Sex Transm Infect. 2001;77:311-313.

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