How is Syphilis Spread?
If you have syphilis, you will find a red sore in a sensitive area following sexual activity. So how is syphilis spread?
It's important to know that symptoms of syphilis come and go, but that doesn't mean the infection disappears. Once it is in your system, the syphilis bacteria will remain there for years, like HIV. It's crucial to treat syphilis as soon as you first experience symptoms.
You can visit a doctor and test for sexually transmitted diseases or use a home testing kit to determine if you have syphilis. No matter what stage you're at, you can be treated to cure the disease and protect your sexual health. However, the symptoms of chlamydia are often easy to miss if you don't know what to look out for. At iPlaySafe App, we're passionate about educating people about sexually transmitted infections and breaking down the stigmas of disucssing them. First, look out for the initial symptoms - we'll outline these in the article.
What is syphilis?
Syphilis is a bacterial infection predominantly spread through sexual contact, although it can also be spread through non-sexual contact with syphilis sores. If you have an infection, you will notice red sores on your genitals, rectum, or mouth; however, syphilis can lay dormant in the body for decades.
Syphilis is a serious condition that can affect your heart, brain, and other organs. It can also be spread between mothers and unborn children. If you have signs of contracting syphilis, it can be treated and sometimes cured with a penicillin injection; it can become life-threatening if left untreated.
How is syphilis spread?
Syphilis is transmitted through contact with syphilis sores, it is a common sexually transmitted infection, and cases of it are increasing. Men who have sex with men are at a higher risk of catching syphilis, as are those who have sex overseas or with multiple sex partners.
Sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis are spread through contact between moist skin areas on the inside or outside of the body, making sexual activity an excellent way for the bacteria to spread.
High-risk activities include unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex, mutual masturbation, sharing sex toys, or non-penetrative sex. Syphilis transmission is also caused through contact with infected areas - genital touching - and through semen or vaginal fluid in the eyes, causing ocular syphilis.
Any non-sexual activity with a sore will spread syphilis, and it can be passed onto an unborn baby during pregnancy. It also makes HIV infection an increased risk.
What are the symptoms?
Syphilis is a disease that moves through stages; these stages have different characteristics and can last for many years and decades. Not every form of the disease will move into the tertiary stage and become life-threatening, but it's always a risk if the infection remains untreated. Always address initial sores.
However, this is not always easy. Many people won't know they have the disease until it moves into a more advanced stage, and in some cases, there are no initial signs of sores on the body.
Still, syphilis can be effectively treated at any stage and cured, although organ damage isn't always repairable. Syphilis progresses in three stages, primary syphilis, secondary syphilis, and tertiary syphilis.
The best time for disease control is in the primary syphilis stage, where it can be cured with a penicillin injection. The most dangerous stage is the tertiary stage, where there is the chance of serious health problems.
You should notice the first signs of syphilis between 10 days and 3-months after contracting it.
Initially, you will notice a red sore in the infected area where contact was made - this could be the penis, the anus, the vagina, the rectum, or the mouth. There is usually one sore in that area which will disappear in 2 to 6 weeks.
If left untreated, the disease will move into its second stage, which becomes more serious and less visible. You might start to notice swelling in your glands, in your neck, in your groin, or your armpits. This happens in combination with ulcers which is primary and secondary syphilis.
A few weeks after the disappearance of the sore, the disease moves into secondary stage syphilis. There are fewer physical symptoms of syphilis at this stage, but you will still experience headaches, fevers, and tiredness. It's also common to find a non-itchy skin rash on the palms of your hands.
Some other symptoms of the primary and secondary stages that are less common include fever, weight loss, patchy hair loss, and joint pains. These symptoms come and go, which is another sign of the disease. This is an indication that you should get tested.
Secondary stage syphilis symptoms appear and disappear within a few weeks or return after a few months. The disease then moves into a symptomless stage that can continue for several years, called "latent syphilis".
In the first year, you can still pass the disease onto others. After a couple of years of the latent condition, you will no longer pass the disease on even if you have it yourself. Unfortunately, this stage of syphilis can continue for many years or even decades.
The disease can be cured at this stage, but it becomes more dangerous if symptoms are left untreated.
Latent stage syphilis
Latent level syphilis is a dangerous incubation time for the disease. There are very few symptoms of it at this point, but it remains in the body and eventually leads to late latent stage syphilis, then onto the tertiary stage.
Early syphilis is up to 12 months; anything after that is classed as late-stage syphilis.
During early-stage syphilis, someone will experience symptoms such as sores, the swelling of lymph glands, fevers, and weight loss. These symptoms tend to come and go, and the disease can be easily passed on.
After 12 months, a person becomes less infectious, but the disease still poses a health risk.
Late-stage / tertiary syphilis
Following the latent stage, there is tertiary syphilis that poses the greatest risk to someone's health.
This stage can begin years or decades after infection and is almost guaranteed to manifest if earlier treatment doesn't occur. Up to 30% of untreated individuals will reach the tertiary stage.
While the initial infection might be localised in a certain part of the body, it can spread to various organs such as the brain, the eyes, the skin, the bones, the nerves and the blood vessels.
In the tertiary stage of the disease, these organs can be seriously damaged, leading to premature death.
Someone in the tertiary stage of syphilis might experience a stroke, some dementia, some loss of coordination, numbness or paralysis.
Other symptoms include blindness, heart disease, deafness and rashes. Although tertiary stage syphilis is very dangerous, it is also very rare; it's unlikely someone will reach this stage undiagnosed.
How is syphilis diagnosed?
Nowadays, syphilis is a simple bacterial infection that isn't difficult to diagnose or treat.
Unfortunately, this wasn't always the case; before the invention of penicillin by Alexander Flemming in 1928, syphilis was very hard to treat and often led to serious conditions in the tertiary stage.
As a result, it often went undiagnosed for many years.
Today, it is far easier to find out if someone's symptoms are related to syphilis. First, a syphilis blood test is carried out to determine if a patient has syphilis antibodies in their system.
Then, depending on the types of antibodies found, doctors can identify the stage of the disease and whether or not it is active.
Another diagnostic test is called a cerebrospinal fluid test or a spinal tap. Also known as a lumbar puncture, the doctor inserts a needle between the two lumbar bones of the lower back and extracts some of the cerebrospinal fluid from the nervous system.
This is used to identify any nervous system issues.
How is it treated?
If you are diagnosed with early latent syphilis, the treatment is relatively straightforward.
Syphilis is best treated at this stage using antibiotics such as penicillin. Penicillin is a highly effective antibiotic that attacks and kills the organism that causes syphilis. But other antibiotics are also available.
You might require an alternative antibiotic if you are allergic to penicillin. In this case, your doctor might recommend another type or suggest penicillin desensitization.
This is a process of administering penicillin gradually to treat the disease without causing an adverse reaction.
Those diagnosed with early-stage syphilis infection or latent stage that is less than 12 months old will be treated with a single dose of penicillin. This is administered via an injection.
More injections may be required to kill the bacteria if the disease is more advanced - in the secondary or tertiary stage.
If you are a pregnant woman with infectious syphilis, you will be treated with a penicillin injection - this is the only treatment available for pregnant women. A penicillin allergy will have to be treated via penicillin desensitization, and the newborn child will also need blood tests.
How can you prevent syphilis transmission?
Syphilis is primarily transmitted through sexual activity and can't be picked up from third party spaces. There has to be some intimate contact with the infected person.
Unprotected sexual activity is the main way that syphilis is transmitted between individuals, so there are several ways you can protect yourself and prevent the spread of the disease.
The best way is to avoid sexual partners completely, but this is unrealistic for most people. If you don't wish to avoid sex but still want to protect yourself from syphilis, you can limit your sex partners or become monogamous.
Alternatively, you can be extra cautious with your sex partners; always use a latex barrier when engaging in oral, vaginal, or anal sex. You can also be tested regularly.
If you discover symptoms of syphilis and these are verified by your doctor, treatment will commence right away. First, however, you need to halt your sex life immediately and contact any sex partners you have had.
After this, your doctor should be able to tell you the stage of the disease you are at.
How do you get syphilis without being sexually active?
Although sexually transmitted syphilis is one of many sexually transmitted infections, sexual activity is not always the cause.
Syphilis can be transmitted from person to person through direct non-sexual activity with the infected area. In the case of syphilis, this is usually skin to skin contact from touching or treating a syphilis sore.
Is syphilis spread by hands?
To catch syphilis, you need to come into contact with a fluid area that contains the bacteria. It is most commonly transmitted through sexual activity but can also be passed on through non-sexual contact with syphilis sores.
This could be blood, semen, vaginal fluid, or saliva on the mouth or lips. It cannot be transmitted otherwise - for example, the syphilis bacteria does not rest on toilet seats and can't be transmitted by holding hands.
What is congenital syphilis?
When the bacterial disease is transmitted from pregnant women to their children before giving birth, it is called congenital syphilis - "congenital" means present from birth. If you're a pregnant woman, it's a good idea to get tested for syphilis and other STIs.
The foetus acquires it in the uterus, and symptoms of congenital syphilis start to appear some weeks and months after the child is born. The best treatment for both mother and child is penicillin injection.
What happens if I leave syphilis untreated?
When left untreated, syphilis naturally moves from one stage to the next over years and decades. Eventually, the disease enters the tertiary stage and leads to brain damage, dementia, heart problems, blindness, and much more. Ultimately it results in death or congenital syphilis for infants.
The good news is that syphilis can be treated quickly and simply nowadays, so remember to test for it regularly.