Definition: What is Syphilis?
Syphlis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by a bacterium called treponema pale (treponema pallidum pallidum). Highly contagious, the disease is transmitted during unprotected sex (vaginal, anal, and oral-genital), as well as blood and placenta (between mother and child during pregnancy). This is why it's important to screen for syphilis in order to avoid any contamination.
Once the bacterium has entered the body, the incubation time may by shorter or longer before the onset of the disease, with an average of 3 weeks. The bacteria multiply before travelling to the tissues and mucous membranes of the body, eventually reaching the blood and lymphatic system. as such, the infection evolves in several stages: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary.
Syphilis had almost disappeared from France, but the number of cases has been steadily rising since the 2000s. According to statistics, more than 850 cases were diagnosed in 2012, compared to only 30 in 2000. There has also been an increase in cases in other countries, particularly in the United States. There, more than 16,000 people were affected by the disease between 2005 and 2013, according to a report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Symptoms of Syphilis
Primary syphilis is the first stage of the disease, but it does not always have any obvious signs. The most common symptom is the appearance of a skin lesion in the area of contact. That is, the area of entry of the bacteria. This lesion is called "chancre" and most often can be found on the penis, vagina, or anus. It can also be located in hidden areas, such as the urethra or the cervix.
The lesion is a hollow pink sore and is painless and itch-free. After a few days, it will be accompanied by painless inflammation of nearby lymph nodes. All lesions are contagious and may persist for several weeks if no treatment is administered. Without proper treatment, the disease will progress to the secondary stage.
This stage appear four to 10 weeks after the primary infection and is due to the spread of the bacteria in the patient's body. Gradually, other symptoms will begin to appear, though they vary from patient to patient. The most common symptom is the appearance of multiple, non-itchy rashes in the mucous membranes and on the skin, including the palms of your hands and soles of your feet.
This rash may be accompanied by symptoms resembling those of the flu, such as fever, headache, fatigue, and muscle pain. Hair loss can also occur. In some cases, secondary syphilis can also cause inflammation of the eyes. These symptoms can disappear on their own without treatment, but that does not mean that the disease is cured.
Evolution of Syphilis
Symptoms of syphilis can reappear intermittently for months or even years. When there has been no chancre, or it has not been found, it is these reoccurring symptoms that can be used to identify the disease. When left untreated, within a few years syphilis will evolve to a more serious stage. This is known as the tertiary stage, which occurs very rarely in developed countries.
Before reaching the the tertiary stage, the disease goes through a latency period during which no symptoms appear, although the infection continues to develop. This can last several years. Without treatment, syphilis will seriously worsen after three to 15 years, affecting all organs. This can result in serious cardiovascular, nerve, bone, and joint disorders.
Syphilis increases the risk of contracting the AIDS virus, and can even lead to the death of the sufferer.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Syphilis
As early as the primary stage, the disease can be diagnosed by looking for the bacteria in the skin lesions or in the blood. Once confirmed, it will be treated with antibiotics from the penicillin family. A single intramuscular injection is sufficient in most cases (more than 90% efficacy). This is, however, quite painful. In some cases, three injections are needed, albeit spaced out.
Blood tests are done to evaluate the effectiveness of the treatment following the injection. The sexual partners of the patient who may have been infected must also be screened and treated if necessary. The patient becomes contagious as soon as the bacteria enters their body.
There is currently no vaccine to prevent syphilis. The only prevention remains the use of contraception (condoms) during sexual intercourse, as well as regular screenings for the disease.