Have you ever heard of syphilis? Maybe you’ve heard that it mostly affects men who have sex with men. But did you know that more and more women are getting it? Did you know that it can have devastating consequences for you and your child if you are pregnant? In just a few minutes of reading, you can learn more about syphilis and how to protect yourself!

What is syphilis?

Syphilis, sometimes called “pox” is a highly contagious sexually transmitted disease caused by Treponema pallidum bacteria. If left untreated, it can lead to serious health problems.

How do you get syphilis?

There are four possible ways to get it.

  • Sex: syphilis is usually transmitted during unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone infected. It is passed from person to person through direct contact with a syphilis sore, also known as a chancre. You can also get it by sharing sex toys with someone who has the infection. You may ask yourself if you can get syphilis from kissing? The answer is YES! If your partner has syphilis sore in his mouth, it can transmit the bacteria to you.
  • Mother to child: pregnant women with syphilis infection can pass it through the placenta to the fetus or at birth; in such cases, the baby has congenital syphilis.
  • Blood transfusions: syphilis can also spread through blood transfusions and blood components donated by infected donors, but this is rare. Most centers perform rigorous tests for infections, including syphilis, before transfusions.
  • Needle Sharing: you can also catch syphilis by sharing needles. Research from the San Diego School of Medicine has discovered that active syphilis infections are significantly greater in female sex workers who inject drugs and share needles than those who don’t. (1)

Syphilis doesn’t spread through casual contact, so you can’t get it from sharing food or drinks, hugging, holding hands, coughing, sneezing, sharing towels, or sitting on toilet seats.

What are the symptoms of syphilis?

The symptoms of syphilis are often mild and can be challenging to recognize. Syphilis is called the “great imitator” because its symptoms can mimic many other diseases. It is possible to contract syphilis without experiencing any symptoms for years.

Syphilis develops in four stages, and symptoms vary with each stage.
  • Primary syphilis: the main symptom is one(sometimes several) small, firm, and painless sore or ulcer that you might overlook. The sore usually appears where the bacteria entered your body. In women, it will typically be on the vulva, the vagina, around the anus, or the cervix (the opening to the uterus). It can also appear in the mouth or on the lips.
    The chancre usually develops around 2 or 3 weeks after infection and will heal on its own within three to six weeks.
  • Secondary syphilis occurs when you don’t get treatment at the primary stage, and the infection progresses. Symptoms of secondary syphilis start a few weeks after the chancre has passed. These symptoms include rashes on the hands’ palms, soles of the feet, or other body parts. The rash is painless and does not itch. Some people also experience flu-like symptoms such as tiredness, headaches, fever, and swollen lymph nodes. These symptoms may pass within a few weeks, although they may come and go as long as a year before they disappear.
  • Latent syphilis: if you don’t get treatment, the infection will progress to the latent (hidden) stage. During the latent stage, there usually are no signs or symptoms. This stage can last for decades. The symptoms may never return, or the infection may progress to the tertiary stage.
  • Tertiary syphilis: the symptoms may occur as early as early one year after the infection or anytime during a person’s lifetime. It is the most critical stage of syphilis. It can affect your heart, brain, nerves, eyes, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints. Some people may never experience this stage of the illness.

Can syphilis cause problems for your baby?

Mother-to-child transmission of syphilis has decreased significantly. Unfortunately, there are still cases, and this is a major public health concern. According to Global Data, “988 000 pregnant women were infected with syphilis in 2016, resulting in around 661,000 congenital syphilis cases, 350 000 adverse birth outcomes including 200 000 stillbirths newborn deaths” (2,3). The rate of congenital syphilis in the United States climbed steadily between 2014 and 2018. Over 1300 cases were reported in 2018, including 78 stillbirths and 16 infant deaths. This rate represents a 185.3% increase relative to 2014. (4) The risk of transmission is highest if the mother’s infection is recent.
When babies born with congenital syphilis survive, they can experience severe health conditions like bone deformities, anemia, jaundice, glaucoma, deafness, meningitis, skin rashes, long-term neurological sequelae, etc.

How is syphilis diagnosed?

Blood tests can diagnose syphilis. When you have syphilis, your body produces antibodies to fight the infection. These antibodies can stay in your body for years. By looking for them, your healthcare provider will be able to determine a current or past infection. If your doctor suspects that the bacteria have spread to your nervous system, he may order a lumbar puncture or spinal tap to search for the syphilis bacteria in your spinal fluid.

What is the treatment for syphilis?

Syphilis is treated with antibiotics, usually penicillin, by intramuscular injection. If you have the infection for less than a year, the recommended treatment is a single penicillin injection. You will probably need additional doses if you have the infection for more than a year. If you are allergic to penicillin, your healthcare provider will give you other antibiotics.
In pregnant women, only penicillin is safe for the baby. The doctor will then recommend desensitization to penicillin. Desensitization is a method of safely administering a medication to a patient who is allergic to it. After treatment, new blood tests will be done to check if the antibiotics have been effective. Unfortunately, the treatment can’t undo any damage caused by late syphilis.

If you receive a diagnosis of syphilis, you must notify your sexual partners. They should get treatment as well. Avoid any sexual activity with your partner until at least two weeks after your treatment finishes.

How do you prevent syphilis?

There is currently no vaccine against syphilis. Like all sexually transmitted infections, the only way to protect yourself effectively is to abstain or have only one partner.
You can also reduce your risk of getting syphilis by always using condoms and get tested regularly if you have multiple sexual partners. As mentioned before, syphilis also spread by oral sex and sex toys, so use a dental dam or condoms during oral sex and avoid sharing sex toys. Although condoms are still essential, they do not offer absolute protection against syphilis, as infection can occur during deep kissing.
If you are pregnant and think you might have syphilis, it is crucial to receive treatment as soon as possible because it is the only way to protect your child against congenital syphilis.

References

  1. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/07/090710205359.htm
  2. Korenromp EL, Rowley J, Alonso M, Mello MB, Wijesooriya NS, et al. (2019) Global burden of maternal and congenital syphilis and associated adverse birth outcomes—Estimates for 2016 and progress since 2012. PLOS ONE 14(2): e0211720
  3. https://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/congenital-syphilis-estimates/en/
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance 2018.https://www.cdc.gov/std/stats18/syphilis.htm
  5. https://www.cdc.gov/std/program/outbreakresources/HANtemplate-cs.htm

 

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About the Author

Hermione M.

My name is Hermione. I am the founder of WomenH and I write about women's health, wellness, mental health, and personal growth. I created this platform to inspire women to take care of themselves mentally, physically, and emotionally to become their best selves. Thank you for stopping by.

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