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What is Syphilis?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Syphilis is one of the more prevalent sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and it can cause, in later stages, damage to the muscles, brain, and other major internal organs. It is caused by the bacterium, Trepodema Pallidum, and is very dangerous. It is particularly dangerous for pregnant women as it can cause stillbirth or death within a few days to a newborn. This disease also increases a person's risk level for contracting HIV. Those who have syphilis sores are two to five times more likely to contract HIV from an infected partner.

There are three distinct stages of syphilis, the first of which can go unnoticed by those affected. Primary infection can occur anywhere between 10 days to three months after contraction of the bacteria. The first indication is a single sore called a chancre. The sore is usually painless, and may heal without treatment, and thus never be noticed. Occasionally, the primary stage will cause multiple sores, which is good, in a way, as it may get people to see a medical professional more immediately.

The secondary stage occurs after the chancre has healed. It is characterized by a red to reddish brown rash that does not itch, and which may be present on the palms and soles of the feet. Those affected by it may also experience muscle aches, fever, swollen glands, sore throat, weight loss, headaches, and/or a feeling of general fatigue. Again, these symptoms can resolve without treatment. If the person who has them suspects exposure to syphilis, these symptoms warrant quickly seeing a medical professional, who can diagnose the illness through a simple blood test. In the primary stage, the diagnosis may also be made through blood test or by analyzing the chancre.

Early diagnosis is key, since it's important to prevent the late stage of the disease, which manifests after the secondary stage symptoms have ended. Late stage syphilis can cause terrible deterioration of the muscles, organs, and brain. It can cause dementia, blindness, or paralysis. The disease may take many years to progress to this point, but advanced cases may cause irreversible damage to the body. Further damage can be avoided by treating the illness.

If someone is diagnosed within a year of having contracted the bacteria, the treatment is a single shot of penicillin, although other antibiotics may be used in case of penicillin allergy. After a year, the shot will be followed with a course of oral antibiotics for several weeks. This effectively cures the illness, but it does not prevent the patient from contracting it again.

Recent studies show that contraction of syphilis is on the rise, particularly in the male population. This is alarming because it suggests that those people are not using safe sex practices, which tend to keep them from contracting the illness. The best defense against the disease is to avoid casual sex and not to engage in sex with a partner who has not been tested for STDs. Long-term monogamous relationships, or abstention from sex in the absence of such, are the best ways to avoid contracting STDs.

Even in long-term exclusive sexual relationships, protection should still be used, in the form of a male or female condom, which can help one avoid contact with skin cells that may harbor STDS. Any type of sexual contact can result in contraction of syphilis. Many young people believe that safety lies in oral sex or mutual masturbatory activities. This is not true. People can contract the disease from oral sex practices as well as from standard intercourse.

TheHealthBoard 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.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a TheHealthBoard contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By astor — On Jul 06, 2010

Another interesting fact about syphilis is that is believed by many to have reached western civilization during Christopher Columbus’s expeditions. The first recorded cases of syphilis were documented in 1495 in French soldiers that are believed to have caught it from Spanish mercenaries working in Naples. The working theory is that someone on Columbus’s boats contracted it while in the “New World” and brought it back to Naples. Throughout the 1500’s, syphilis would go on to become one of the most deadly and horrific epidemics in European history.

By klo — On Jul 06, 2010

I was reading about syphilis a while back and I noticed an interesting pattern among those affected by it. A number of history’s worst and most cruel dictators and criminals have suffered from this disease. Victims include Henry VIII, Ivan the Terrible, Al Capone, and most recently, Adolf Hitler, among others. While it has never been conclusively proven that Hitler had the disease, there is much evidence to suggest that he did in fact have syphilis. It is interesting to note that Hitler is believed to have contracted the disease in the very early 20th century from a Jewish prostitute. Since syphilis can evolve into a neurological disorder if not treated in its early or middle stages, some have theorized that the infamous dictator may have been partially driven towards his atrocities by the dementia that the disease can cause. No one is completely sure on this subject, but it’s interesting to think about.

By cmsmith10 — On Jul 04, 2010

Some syphilis statistics according to the CDC:

Syphilis seems to be an important problem in the South and in more urban areas. Between 2007 and 2008, the number of cases of early latent syphilis reported to CDC increased 15.2%. The number of cases of late latent syphilis increased 9.3%. The rate of P&S (primary and secondary) in the U.S. in 2008 was 18.4% higher than in 2007. The South accounted for almost 50% of the cases in 2007 and 2008. The rate of syphilis among men increased 15% between 2007 and 2008. With women, the rate increased 36.4%.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a TheHealthBoard contributor, Tricia...
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