Syphilis (Treponema pallidum)

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. Having unprotected sex can increase your risk of getting an STI. If left untreated, it can result in serious illness or, in rare cases, death.

Symptoms

Syphilis is known as the “great imitator” because of the wide range of symptoms that infected individuals may develop. These symptoms can be confused with other conditions or diseases that can be overlooked by a health professional.

The first symptom consists of a painless open sore called a chancre or ulcer. This usually appears three days to three months after having sex with someone infected with syphilis. The chancre appears on the site that the bacteria entered the body. This mainly occurs on the genitals (e.g. vagina, penis), rectum, lips or mouth. A body rash and flu-like symptoms may follow after the initial symptoms. Some people infected with syphilis may not develop these symptoms for years.

Causes

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection that is typically transmitted through anal, vaginal or oral sex with direct contact with syphilis sores. Pregnant women can pass on the infection to their unborn baby during pregnancy or childbirth. This is called congenital syphilis (CS). This may lead to birth defects or stillbirth.

How can congenital syphilis (CS) affect a baby?

CS can have serious and permanent health impacts on a baby. How CS affects a baby's health depends on how long the mother had syphilis and if - or when - she got treatment for the infection.

CS can cause:

  • miscarriage (losing the baby during pregnancy)
  • stillbirth (a baby born dead)
  • prematurity (a baby born early)
  • low birth weight
  • death shortly after birth
Up to 40 per cent of babies born to women with untreated syphilis may be stillborn, or die from the infection as a newborn.

For babies born with CS, CS can cause:

  • deformed bones
  • severe anemia (low blood count)
  • enlarged liver and spleen
  • jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
  • brain and nerve problems such as blindness or deafness
  • meningitis
  • skin rashes
Treatment

Syphilis can be cured with antibiotics, usually penicillin. Those infected with syphilis should inform their sexual partner(s) about their diagnosis. They also need to be tested and treated.

If tested positive for syphilis during pregnancy, treatment is required right away. Babies who have CS need to be treated right away - or they can develop serious health problems. Depending on the results of a baby’s medical evaluation, they may need antibiotics in a hospital for 10 days. In some cases, only one injection of antibiotic is needed. It is also important that babies treated for CS get follow-up care to make sure that the treatment worked.

After being diagnosed and treated for syphilis, follow-up testing with a health care provider for at least one year is required to make sure that the treatment is working.

It is important to receive treatment as soon as possible. Treatment can only kill the bacteria that cause the infection. It cannot repair the damage done.

Prevention

Syphilis can be prevented by consistently avoiding risky behaviours. Thus, avoid having multiple sexual partners and unprotected sex. Inform your sexual partner(s) so they can be tested and, if needed, receive treatment will help reduce the spread of the disease.

If pregnant, a syphilis test should be done at the first prenatal visit. Reduce the risk of getting syphilis before and during pregnancy.

Talk with a doctor or health care provider about your risk for syphilis. Have an open and honest conversation about your sexual history and testing for sexually transmitted infections (also known as sexually transmitted diseases or STDs). Your doctor can give you the best advice on any testing and treatment that you may need.


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