While syphilis can be an extremely serious form of sexually transmitted infection, nowadays it is much less common thanks to the use of penicillin. In previous generations, syphilis had been a major cause of death across Europe with strains such as congenital syphilis occurring in situations where babies caught the infection from their mothers which caused a loss of sight, hearing and some brain damage. However, in recent years we have seen a very slight increase in cases particularly in the United Kingdom. It is transmitted through ordinary intercourse, anal and oral sex or through other forms of sexual contact. It was initially caused by a germ called Treponema Palidum which came in the form of a small spiral shaped organism known as a “Spirochete.” Genetically, it shares similarities with some micro organisms known for causing tropical disease which adds to the theory that syphilis may have been carried into this country from a traveller. The infection is only transmitted if the mucus membrane of a carrier comes into direct sexual contact with their partner.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of syphilis come in three stages, though by the third stage, these symptoms may have taken on a more life threatening form and in some instance may not occur. The process begins somewhere between the ninth and ninetieth days after initial contact with an infected subject. You will develop pea sized red or brown coloured button shaped lump at the point of infection. This point of infection is usually identified around the vulva, penis, mouth or anus of the subject. In all instances, this lesion will remain painless and cause little irritation. A few days after this lesion emerges it will develop into a sore or ulcer like point. This is called a “Chancre” and while still relatively painless leads to further problems. Around three to ten weeks later, the “Chancre” should heal marking the point at which the syphilis germ has entered the body.

The second stage of the process, at which point further symptoms emerge, comes two month after the initial infection. These symptoms include nausea, a feeling of being unwell, fever, headaches, skin rashes, swollen glands and the appearance of grey and white particles inside the mouth and the genital region. Because of the amount of symptoms that are commonplace amongst other illnesses, a doctor may not be able to definitively diagnose the condition and therefore a blood test will be required.

What can Syphilis lead to?

If untreated, Syphilis can enter the third and most dangerous stage. This can begin anytime between ten and twenty years after the initial infection. The infection begins to take hold of various key organs and areas of the body, attacking the brain, heart, blood vessels, skin, liver, bones and spinal cord. These attacks can lead to paralysis, madness, organ failure and death. However, it is important to note that the final stage of syphilis does not always take hold of a sufferer and they can effectively outlive it. Regardless of this, any sufferer should always seek immediate treatment.

How is it diagnosed?

Because of the rare nature of syphilis nowadays, doctors are not used to dealing with cases and may not directly spot the links. In the event of suspect syphilis it is advised that you seek a clinic that specialises in venereal disease. They will examine your mouth for any grey or white spots, record any additional symptoms and perform a blood test to confirm the condition. Due to the vast array of symptoms which can be linked to other illness, a blood test is usually deemed essential.

How can I treat this?

Syphilis can be dealt with effectively through a simple dose of penicillin. This will cure any infection, though if treated with it, you must remember that follow treatment a patient is likely to remain contagious for some time. It is therefore advised that any sexual contact be placed on hold for a considerable amount of time.
In instances where a sufferer may be allergic to penicillin a number of alternative antibiotics are available for use. The only other concern when using penicillin is incurring a patient reaction that fits the “Jarisch Herxheimer reaction” whereby a user experiences headaches, fever, sweating, aches, shivering and even collapse, though this reaction is very rare.

Where can I go?

Some doctors may not immediately diagnose a patient with syphilis as the infection has become much rarer since the emergence of penicillin. In the United Kingdom there is an extensive network of clinics that specialize in venereal disease. These Genito Urinary Medicine clinics can help to quickly identify the illness and apply effective methods of treatment. They also provide information and support on living with the infection.

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