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What are the Consequences of Untreated Syphilis?

By Nat Robinson
Updated: Mar 03, 2024

The consequences of untreated syphilis can be detrimental. If left untreated, syphilis can so severely damage the heart that one may enter heart failure. It can also cause neurological issues such as strokes and seizures and can eventually lead to blindness. Research suggests that syphilis which remains untreated may make a person more susceptible to other sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV. In addition, pregnant women with syphilis may be left with the consequence of passing the infection on to their unborn child.

Syphilis is a type of bacterial infection generally caused by Treponema pallidum bacteria. In most cases, syphilis is spread when the infection enters the body, mainly through broken skin. The infection occurs in several stages: the primary, secondary, latent and tertiary stages. Untreated syphilis in the primary stage will generally advance into the second stage, which may advance into the later stages when no treatment is received. Syphilis is mostly treated with penicillin or a closely related antibiotic and is quite curable when treated in the earlier stages.

Syphilis symptoms generally vary by the stage. During the primary stage, painless sores may develop at the entry site of the infection. Without treatment, the secondary stage may evolve to the development of rashes, body soreness, fever and fatigue. Symptoms of the first or second stage may disappear, however, untreated syphilis may still be present in the body and remain transmittable.

Latent syphilis is the stage in which the infection performs a disappearing act of sorts. During this stage, the person may not have any outward syphilis symptoms. The symptoms may remain dormant for extended periods. Even if this happens, untreated syphilis can still progress to the most dangerous state, which is the tertiary stage.

The consequences of late stage syphilis can be very critical and even fatal. It can significantly damage the heart by leading to valvular disease, aorta inflammation and heart failure. It may also cause involuntary muscle movements, stroke, blindness and paralysis. In addition, untreated syphilis may lead to other sexually transmitted diseases. For example, HIV may be more easily transmitted through skin openings or sores that develop due to syphilis.

Syphilis that goes untreated can also damage the brain. Neurosyphilis is a type of infection that may affect the brain and spinal cord. It is generally caused by the same bacteria that causes syphilis. Neurosyphilis may cause dementia, affect walking, lead to confusion and cause blindness. It may additionally cause weakness, tremors and seizures.

Another consequence of untreated syphilis is congenital syphilis. This type of syphilis is passed from an infected pregnant mother to her baby. Babies born with syphilis may have skin sores just as some adults do in addition to a swollen spleen or liver, rashes and jaundice. The consequence of this illness in babies can be fatal. Some mothers with syphilis have stillbirths and babies who survive who are untreated may have seizures, deafness or a number of physical deformities.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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