What is Syphilis?
MEDICAL ANIMATION TRANSCRIPT: Syphilis is a type of sexually transmitted disease or infection. It’s more common in men than women. The infection commonly affects your genitals, which are the reproductive organs inside and outside of your body. It can also affect your anal area, and the last part of your large intestine, called the rectum. Your lips, tongue, or other parts of your body may also be affected. The germs that cause the infection are tiny spiral or coiled bacteria called Treponema pallidum. You can catch the bacteria through sexual contact with a person who currently has syphilis, especially someone who has syphilitic sores in or around their genitals or mouth. And pregnant women who have syphilis can pass the disease to their unborn child. The bacteria can enter your body through tiny cuts or scrapes in your skin or the tissue that lines many of your body cavities, including the tissue lining your mouth, genitals, or anus. Within a few hours, the bacteria can spread throughout your body to cause infection. From there, syphilis has four disease stages with varying symptoms that can occur over a period of ten or more years: the primary stage, the secondary stage, the latent stage, and the tertiary stage. In the primary stage, you may have one or more very infectious, but often painless, sores called chancres that appear within a few days or weeks. They occur at the site where the bacteria entered your body, such as in, on, or around the penis, vagina, anus, rectum, or mouth. These sores may last for several weeks. If not treated, the disease will progress to the secondary stage. During this stage, in addition to sores, a rash may appear on one or more areas of your body. Other symptoms during this stage may include: fever, headaches, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, patches of hair loss, weight loss, muscle aches, and fatigue. Since other diseases also have these symptoms, syphilis is sometimes referred to as “the great imitator.” The latent, or “hidden,” stage usually begins about one to two years after the infection started. During this stage, the sores and rashes are no longer visible, and other symptoms have gone away. But, without treatment, the bacteria will stay in your body. This stage may last for years, and you may still be able to spread the disease to others. The tertiary stage of syphilis is rare but may appear ten to thirty years after the infection started. During this stage, the bacteria may spread to many other areas of your body, including your brain and nerves, eyes, heart and blood vessels, liver, and bones and joints. The symptoms will depend on where it has spread. Having tertiary syphilis is very serious because it can damage your internal organs and can be fatal. The main risk for getting syphilis is having contact with a sore during vaginal, anal, or oral sex with a person who has the infection. You may have a higher risk if you are sexually active and are a man who has sex with men, have the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, take medicine to prevent HIV, or have one or more partners that have syphilis. At any stage, untreated syphilis may spread to other areas of your body. For example, neurosyphilis happens when it spreads to your brain and nerves. Symptoms of neurosyphilis can include headaches, weak muscles and trouble moving, and mental problems, such as confusion or trouble with focus, memory, thinking, or making decisions. Ocular syphilis occurs when syphilis spreads to your eyes. Symptoms of ocular syphilis can include eye pain or redness, vision changes, or even blindness. And if syphilis spreads to your ears, it’s called otosyphilis. Symptoms of otosyphilis can include hearing loss, a ringing or buzzing sound in your ears, called tinnitus, dizziness, or a feeling that you or everything around you is moving or spinning, called vertigo. If you think you might have symptoms of syphilis, or want to find out more about it, talk to your healthcare practitioner.